Tribe suing beer companies for alcohol problems
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- An American Indian tribe sued some of the world's largest beer makers Thursday, claiming they knowingly contributed to devastating alcohol-related problems on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota said it is demanding $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska also targets four off-site beer stores in Whiteclay, a Nebraska Panhandle town that, despite having only about a dozen residents, sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010. Most of its customers come from the Pine Ridge reservation on the town's border.
Tribal leaders and activists blame the Whiteclay businesses for chronic alcohol abuse and bootlegging on the reservation, where all alcohol is banned.
"You cannot sell 4.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer and wash your hands like Pontius Pilate, and say we've got nothing to do with it being smuggled," said Tom White, the tribe's Omaha-based attorney.
Owners of the four beer stores in Whiteclay declined comment or were unavailable Thursday. A spokeswoman for Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide said she was not yet aware of the lawsuit, and the other four companies being sued -- SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company -- did not immediately return messages from The Associated Press.
The lawsuit alleges that the beer makers and stores sold to Pine Ridge's Indian population, knowing they would smuggle the alcohol into the reservation to drink or resell. The beer makers supplied the stores with "volumes of beer far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska" and the tribe, tribal officials allege in the lawsuit.
The Connecticut-sized reservation has struggled with alcoholism and poverty for generations, despite an alcohol ban in place since 1832. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to allow it in 2004 died after a public outcry.
The reservation encompasses some of the nation's most impoverished counties. U.S. census statistics place Shannon County, S.D., as the third-poorest, with a median household income of $27,300 and nearly half of the population falling below federal poverty standards.
The tribe views the lawsuit as a last resort after numerous failed attempts to curb the abuse through protests and public pressure on lawmakers, White said. He said the tribal council voted unanimously about four months ago to hire his law firm.
The lawsuit says one in four children born on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The average life expectancy is estimated between 45 and 52 years, the shortest in North America except for Haiti, according to the lawsuit. The average American life expectancy is 77.5 years.
"The illegal sale and trade in alcohol in Whiteclay is open, notorious and well documented by news reports, legislative hearings, movies, public protests and law enforcement activities," the lawsuit states. " All of the above have resulted in the publication of the facts of the illegal trade in alcohol and its devastating effects on the Lakota people, especially its children, both born and unborn."
Nebraska lawmakers have struggled for years to curb the problem, and are considering legislation this year that would allow the state to limit the types of alcohol sold in areas like Whiteclay. The measure would require local authorities to ask the state to designate the area an "alcohol impact zone."
Nebraska state Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, whose district includes Whiteclay, said he introduced the measure with support from county officials who have seen their health care and jail incarceration costs rise.
Associated Press writer Michael Avok contributed to this report from Lincoln, Neb.