“Sorry, I cannot help you.” These are words you will likely hear if you contact an attorney about an injury or other wrong suffered at a Casino on Indian land or by an Indian owned business. This is because the Alabama Constitution and Alabama law do not apply to jurisdictions under Indian control. Customers who visit tribal casinos are usually unaware that they have entered a jurisdiction where Alabama law does not generally apply. Federally recognized Indian tribes, which are separate sovereigns under the U.S. Constitution, operate tribal casinos in Alabama and also own businesses.
Indian casinos and adjoining hotels, which are located on tribal land, enjoy what is called sovereign immunity. Tribal sovereign immunity protects Indian tribes from suits absent express authorization by congress or a clear waiver by the tribe. Sovereign immunity extends to bar claims for injuries or death, even to persons who have never set foot in an Indian casino or on Indian land.
Josh Harvey, his pregnant wife and their three children were on their way home from a Halloween party. A casino patron who had been gambling and drinking for approximately five hours rear-ended the Harvey’s vehicle while travelling at approximately 90 miles per hour with no evidence of braking prior to impact. Josh Harvey, his wife, their unborn child and two of their three children were killed. The patron was sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter. The court dismissed the Harveys’ civil suit against the casino holding that the casino, owned by the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, enjoyed sovereign immunity from claims that it served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron. So, if you or a family member are injured or killed by a drunk driver who was over-served at a casino, sorry.
If you enter onto casino property and one of the gaming machines malfunctions or you believe you have been treated unfairly as it relates to claims for winnings or other promotions or prizes, sorry. If you are assaulted or robbed in the parking lot by another patron due to inadequate security measures, sorry. If someone gains access to your hotel room and you are robbed or assaulted, sorry. If you enter into any type of contract or prospective contract with the casino or the hotel and a dispute arises, sorry. If an intoxicated casino employee in a casino vehicle injures you in a crash, sorry. These are all examples of scenarios where sovereign immunity acts as a complete bar to any claim or recovery.
If you apply for a loan from a lending institution, you will need to research whether that lender is an “arm of the tribe.” If you have a dispute with a lender that is an arm of the tribe and want to file suit, sorry. The Circuit Court for the Seventh Judicial Circuit for St. Johns County, Fla., recently held that Great Plains Lending LLC was entitled to sovereign immunity in an action alleging violation of the Florida Consumer Collection Protection Act. The Court found that Great Plains Lending was an “arm of the tribe” and thus immune from suit. Great Plains Lending is wholly owned by the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, an Oklahoma tribe.
In addition to the above, sovereign immunity also protects the tribe from suits governed by Federal Law. As an example, if you are employed by a tribe and they fire you based on your age, sorry. A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that The Poarch Creek Band of Indians is immune from suits brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
As mentioned above, a tribe may expressly waive sovereign immunity. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians waived its sovereign immunity for certain very limited claims that occur on tribal lands. Some examples would be where a patron slips and falls or where a person becomes sick due to the negligence of a tribal employee in food preparation. However, because these claims arise on tribal land, they are governed by Indian law and must be filed in the tribal court. Tribal courts have different notice provisions, procedural rules, liability limitations, damage caps and limited appellate opportunities. Some specific limitations are that no claim may be made and no award may be granted in excess of $100,000.00 per person; no punitive damages or attorneys fee may be awarded; no award for pain and suffering or for mental anguish.
You will not see conspicuous signs outside an Indian Casino that state “Warning – Enter at Your Own Risk.” Nor will you see disclaimers on documents notifying you that the business is Indian owned and may be subject to different laws. However, you need to know that is exactly what you are doing. If you are unfortunately injured or wronged while on Indian casino land, or at the hands of a Tribe owned business, hopefully you will not have to hear the words “Sorry – I cannot help you.”
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