Tribes seek injunction against tobacco settlement

NEW YORK, June 23, 1999 (Reuters) - A coalition of American Indian tribes late on Tuesday sought an injunction against major tobacco manufacturers, trying to block part of the companies' $206 billion tobacco settlement with U.S. states, an attorney for the tribes said.

The request for a preliminary injunction, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, follows a lawsuit the tribes filed against tobacco companies on June 2. The suit argues that the settlement, reached last November between Big Tobacco and 46 states, does not provide for direct payments to American Indians and infringes on tribal sovereignty.

William Audet, lead attorney representing the tribes, said in a telephone interview that the injunction was needed to protect settlement money the tribes think is rightly theirs from being lost in accounts set up for general settlement money.

The amounts being paid to each state, which are now collecting in escrow funds until they are allowed to be released, are based upon U.S. census population data that includes American Indians. The injunction request calls for the portion of payments based on each state's tribal population to be redirected to a separate fund.

In California, for example, about $234 million of the state's $25 billion settlement payment is based on its tribal population, Audet said.

In total, the tribes maintain they are entitled to at least $1 billion of the $206 billion, 25-year agreement. The companies, which face hundreds of outstanding lawsuits related to the health risks of smoking, agreed to the settlement in hopes of limiting their litigation risks.

The injunction also asks the court to block the portion of the nationwide settlement that interferes with tribal sovereignty. Because American Indian tribes who live on tribal land are considered sovereign entities by federal law, the agreement interferes with tribal sovereignty and should be deemed invalid, Audet said.

Audet said he expected a hearing on the injunction request would be held in late August.