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The notion of fair compensation today should include compensation that would be normally available anywhere a person might file a wrongful death action.
On May 7,1984, Defendant Phillip Lee, in the course of employment with the Navajo Nation, while driving a Navajo tribal vehicle, struck and ran over a three year old child, Monica Lula Benally, who was at the time crossing a dirt road (commonly referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs Route No. 36) located about six miles west of the Nenahnezad Boarding School within the Navajo Reservation. It is further alleged that as a result of this accident, the minor child died about one (1) hour later at the Shiprock Public Health Service Hospital, Shiprock, New Mexico.
Is the victim’s mother allowed to recover monetary damages in a wrongful death of a minor under Navajo common law?
This Court does not agree with the defendant's contention that a wrongful death action is foreign to the custom and tradition of the Navajo people. Compensation for wrongful death of a human being is and always has been recognized at Navajo common law. Expert testimony showed that when a Navajo dies from the careless conduct of another, the person responsible for the death pays the immediate family restitution such as livestock and jewelry. If a person dies in a wrongful death situation, the closer relative would be given sheep to relieve that person from loneliness. Regarding the wrongful death of a minor child, the expert testimony added that children are highly valued by Navajo families, thus if a child died as a result of wrongful death in a situation where the minor was run over by a car, payment for funeral expenses would be expected by the immediate family.
Defendants contend that the principle of Navajo torts does not result in an "intolerable burden upon all human activity" because the damages sought are not a direct monetary repayment for the loss and all of its ramifications, but only token. Human loss cannot be fully compensated for by money. This is certainly not the case in today's Navajo world. The value and expectation of the Navajo people with respect to money have changed. For example, the value of dollars and cents, for pain and suffering of a person disabled by an accident, has become a significant consideration for damage recovery, even to a traditional Navajo person. To be sure, money cannot replace the life of a child who dies from an accident. The Navajo experts stated what all Navajos know; compensation for loss is part of our way. It is true that the payback "nalyeeh" in the past may have been adequate if it was three horses, ten head of sheep, a belt or strand of beads. The value of such compensation may have been high yesterday. Times have changed. More Navajos work for money today. The concepts of payment have changed. The law of Navajo tort has also changed.