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No Tribal Immunity for Negligent Driver, Supreme Court Rules

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

An Indian casino driver cannot claim tribal immunity from suit after he crashed into a car on an interstate highway, the nation's highest court ruled.

The U.S. Supreme Court said that William Clarke was sued in his personal capacity -- not an official capacity -- and so he could not escape responsibility as a driver for the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. The plaintiffs Brian and Michelle Lewis claimed Clarke, and not the tribe, caused their injuries.

"We hold that, in a suit brought against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest and the tribe's sovereign immunity is not implicated," Justice Sonia Maria Sotomayor wrote for the court in Lewis v. Clarke.

Tribal Immunity

The court said that Indian tribes are generally entitled to immunity from suit, but that sovereign immunity did not reach the facts in the Lewis v. Clarke case. More than two hundred years after the famed explorers Lewis and Clark crossed the continent, the personal injury case stemmed from an accident on a Connecticut interstate.

Driving a limo for the Mohegan Sun Casino in 2011, Clarke crashed into the back of the Lewises' car and sent them into a concrete barrier. They sued the driver and the casino, but later dismissed the casino to avoid issues with tribal immunity.

Clarke claimed tribal immunity on his own behalf, and ultimately the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with him. In a test of the boundaries of tribal rights, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

"Missiles" on the Road

At oral argument in January, Justice Stephen Breyer seemed skeptical of Clarke's position. The judge suggested tribal immunity could be used to endanger drivers on public roads.

"And so, therefore the tribe is totally immune from most ordinary accidents taking place off the reservation and the victim of now these missiles being sent out from the reservation because they run over people and there's no remedy at all?" he said.

Breyer said that scenario pushed immunity "off the reservation into a place where there are just no remedies for the victim at all."

Todd Henderson, a professor and scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, predicted the court's decision. He said much of Indian sovereignty law turns on whether non-members have effectual remedies in court.

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