Mohegan case that led to U.S. Supreme Court decision is settled on its merits
Waterford — It was a “standard” car accident that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.
On Oct. 22, 2011, a Mohegan Sun limousine shuttling casino patrons between southeastern Connecticut and Fairfield County rear-ended a vehicle headed south on Interstate 95 in Norwalk, sending the vehicle onto a Jersey barrier and seriously injuring its occupants, Brian and Michelle Lewis, a Bethlehem, Pa., couple who sued the limo driver.
The parties settled last Thursday for $110,000.
Exactly two years before, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Lewises could pursue their claim against the limo driver, William Clarke of Norwich, who had contended he was protected by the Mohegan Tribe’s sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The 8-0 decision established for the first time that a tribal employee or tribal member can be sued as an individual over actions he takes within the scope of his employment when those actions occur outside a sovereign tribe’s reservation.
“This case was never about a big recovery for the Lewises,” James Harrington, the couple’s Waterford attorney, said Monday in an interview. “They were only looking for compensation for their medical bills.”
Once the high court ruled on the jurisdictional question, reversing the Connecticut Supreme Court and sending the matter back to New London Superior Court, “It was a standard motor vehicle accident,” Harrington said. “There was never any dispute that Mr. Clarke was at fault.”
Harrington said he doesn’t know who ultimately will pay the settlement.
“Technically, the agreement is with Mr. Clarke,” he said. “Whether the money comes from him, the tribe or an insurance policy, we don’t know. My guess is it’s not coming from Mr. Clarke.”
The tribe did not comment on the settlement.
In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision, scores of federal court cases have referenced Lewis v. Clarke, according to Harrington. Locally, an attorney for an East Lyme property owner cited the precedent-setting nature of the case in filing a Superior Court suit against Mohegan historic preservation officials in a dispute over a proposed cell tower's potential impact on adjoining landscape.
Tribal employees and tribal members are now potentially subject to lawsuits involving racketeering, predatory lending, contract fraud and violations of the False Claims Act, and for the first time, Harrington said, they are subject to federal court subpoenas.
While the Mohegan Tribe may have wanted to expand sovereign immunity in Lewis v. Clarke, the case’s outcome has instead served to limit immunity for tribes across the country, Harrington said.
“We’ve swung the pendulum back to the middle,” he said. “For too long, it had gone the other way. We brought some fairness back.”