Stillaguamish Tribe sues state, disputes Oso mudslide liability

OSO — The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians has sued the state in federal court, asking that it not be held liable for damages related to the deadly Oso mudslide.

The suit came in response to letters the state Attorney General’s Office sent the tribe, stating that a wooden crib wall the tribe built in 2006 along the bank of the North Fork Stillaguamish River possibly contributed to the damage caused by the slide.

The tribe is seeking a ruling that it is not liable for any of the damages. Calls to the state Attorney General’s office and the Stillaguamish Tribe were not immediately returned.

The March 22, 2014, slide killed 43 people, injured dozens of others and destroyed 40 homes.

Later that year, victims, the estates of the deceased and property owners in the slide zone sued Snohomish County, the state and Grandy Lake Forest Associates, a timber company that years earlier logged the top of the hill where the slide took place.

Among other claims, the plaintiffs contend the crib wall gave the people in the neighborhood a false sense of security. The case is scheduled to go to trial in the fall.

For decades before the 2014 slide, the hillside above the Steelhead Haven neighborhood outside Oso had been a source of sediment in the river, which degraded salmon spawning grounds.

In April 2005, Pat Stevenson, the environmental manager for the tribe, signed an agreement with the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board that provided $497,000 to improve fish habitat.

In 2006, after a large slide damaged some fishing cabins along the river, the tribe built the crib wall and retention ponds to reduce the sediment and further erosion at the toe of the slide.

In the letter sent to the tribe this year, the Attorney General’s office claimed the tribe shares in the state’s potential liability for the work done on the riverbank. The tribe might be responsible for a share of the $12 million the state estimated might be due to the plaintiffs, the state said.

“The claims asserted by the plaintiffs related to the crib wall and sediment retention ponds constructed by the Stillaguamish Tribe as part of its project trigger the Tribes’ duty to defend, identify, and hold harmless the State from these claims as provided by the funding agreement,” the Attorney General’s letter states.

The tribe disputed the claim, saying the agreement between the tribe and state is invalid because there is no evidence the tribe’s board of directors approved the agreement, and Stevenson was never authorized to sign it.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that tribes are immune from state tort claims.

“Without a Board resolution approving the Agreement or authorizing anyone to sign it on the Tribe’s behalf, the Tribe did not agree to be bound by the Agreement or any of the provisions therein, and the Tribe could not have waived its inherent sovereign immunity for claims arising out of this agreement,” the suit states.

Even if the agreement were valid, the tribe stated, the waiver of immunity only applied to actions the state could take to enforce the agreement, which excludes third-party actions — such as the lawsuit brought by those harmed in the Oso mudslide.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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