Unanimous high court decision allows personal injury case to proceed to trial
A legal case involving a Connecticut rear-end accident made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court due to issues involving tribal sovereign immunity. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with the injured parties, who can now pursue legal action for injuries sustained in their car crash.
The legal case, Lewis et al. v. Clarke, involved two Connecticut motorists who sustained severe head injuries when their vehicle was rear-ended by a limousine traveling 60 to 70 mph owned by the Mohegan Sun casino and driven by William Clarke, a casino employee, according to the Norwich Bulletin. The car crash happened in October 2011 on Interstate 95 in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is located 85 miles south of the casino and did not occur on tribal land, according several news websites, including Forbes.
Because the at-fault driver was an employee of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, an arm of the Mohegan Tribe which enjoys sovereign immunity, the defendant appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, arguing that the case could not proceed to trial because the tribe's sovereign immunity extended to casino employees while on the job. The Connecticut high court sided with the limousine driver in a unanimous decision in March 2016.
That ruling was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. And in an 8-0 decision last month, the high court reversed the Connecticut court's ruling, allowing the case to proceed to trial in New London, CT and striking down the sovereign immunity defense. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision.
Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tribal employee was sued in an individual capacity for his liability for the car accident, which means that the tribe cannot invoke its sovereign immunity in this case. "We are cognizant of the Supreme Court of Connecticut's concern that plaintiffs not circumvent tribal sovereign immunity," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court's unanimous 17-page decision. "But here that immunity is simply not in play. Clarke, not the (Mohegan Tribal) Gaming Authority, is the real party in interest."
Sovereign immunity matters can significantly complicate personal injury cases
Car accident cases involving sovereign immunity are actually somewhat common. In addition to cases involving tribal immunity, as with Lewis et al. v. Clarke, some car accidents involve vehicles owned by municipal or state governments, which may also enjoy sovereign immunity protection. Moreover, most roads in Connecticut are maintained by the government, and in situations where the maintenance of a road contributes to causing a crash, the government's sovereign immunity may affect the victim's ability to recover.
These immunity questions apply to personal injury cases outside the realm of auto accidents as well, such as injuries at parks and schools operated by local governments, slip-and-fall accidents on public sidewalks or in public buildings, or medical malpractice that occurs at state-owned hospitals and medical facilities. In each case, the legal implications can quickly become complex, and strict deadlines and regulations must be followed in order for the injured person to obtain fair compensation.
Here in Connecticut, claims against the state are governed under Title 4, Chapter 53 of the General Statutes of Connecticut. In general, the state may be held liable for acts of negligence committed by state employees in the course of their employment in the same manner that a private person could be held liable for the same acts. However, these claims can only proceed with the state's consent - in essence, the state chooses whether or not it will waive its sovereign immunity - and such claims must be filed with the state Claims Commissioner within a timeframe that is shorter than the usual statute of limitations for personal injury cases.
For a person injured by the actions of a government entity, whether that entity is a tribe, a local government, the State of Connecticut or even the federal government, the most important step is to retain an experienced lawyer right away. Cases involving sovereign immunity can certainly be pursued, as the decision in Lewis et al. v. Clarke illustrates, but they are extremely complex, and a single missed deadline can bar you from recovering any compensation for your injuries. The sooner you have an experienced attorney on your side, the easier it will be to fight for the justice you deserve.