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United States v. General Motors
Stunned Elk avoid a fire sweeping through Montana's Bitterroot Valley by standing in a river. Credit: John McColgan (AFS, BLM) through NASA.
Protecting Indian lands and resources involves more than resolving disputes over water rights and reservation boundaries. In United States v. General Motors, seeking to recover for damages to timber on the Flathead Reservation, the Indian Resources Section litigated an unusual products liability claim involving a defective parking brake on a motor home.

The brake self-applied when the vehicle was traveling at 55 miles an hour through the Flathead Indian Reservation. The defect caused the brake drum to overheat and explode, throwing sparks and heated brake parts into a heavily forested area. Fires on both sides of the highway ultimately burned 4300 acres of tribal range land and timber.

Although the manufacturer agreed that the brake was defective, it claimed that the fires could easily have been extinguished. It alleged that the tribe sent unqualified crews that merely watched for up to an hour before finally trying to suppress the fires with shovels and chaps covered with gasoline and oil. The case went to mediation, and the defendants agreed to pay $1.25 million in compensation.


Last Updated: November 2010