Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
On Indian Reservations, A Different Set of Laws
Zachary R. Dowdy
November 28, 2001
It was bad enough that Rosalie Meoni didn't win a dime the last time she visited the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.
Things only got worse that Oct. 7 when she left for home. As she walked through a dimly lighted parking lot of the casino, she tripped on a round base designed for a metal pole, fell face-first and heard her head crack. Pain gripped her nose. Then came blood -- lots of it.
"I did a dive right down on my face and I broke my nose," said Meoni, 63, of Coram, a part-time office clerk in Centereach. "I had a concussion. I was covered with blood. My husband was covered with blood. It was awful."
That streak of bad luck was exacerbated, she said, by the staff's mistreatment, and the incident became a painful lesson in the way things are done on the Mohegan Indian reservation.
Mohegan Sun employees were hardly comforting after her fall, she said, and they told her that the land she stumbled on was owned by the Mohegan nation, and that she had little, if any, legal claim to damages.
That stems from the tribe's sovereign immunity, which is protected by federal law. Basically, the grounds where the casino is located, though within Connecticut, belong to a sovereign nation that sets its own laws for legal redress and operates independently of the state and federal court systems.
In fact, Mohegan tribe officials say the most Meoni can hope for is 200 percent of her actual expenses, including medical fees, which are still mounting, and lost wages. That's about $1,100 so far, because she hasn't worked since the accident. She would get nothing for pain and suffering -- damages that are a staple of civil cases in state courts.
If Meoni pursues the case, it would be heard in the tribe's Gaming Disputes Court, a forum that follows many of the rules of civil cases in state courts with a key exception: There are no juries. Judges designated by the tribe are the sole arbiters.
"The awards are generally lower because we don't pay for pain and suffering," said Tom Acevedo, chief of staff of the Mohegan tribe. "We have these cases regularly when patrons slip and fall."
Acevedo said the tribal court procedures, which are similar to those in operation at the nearby Foxwoods casino, run by the Mashantucket Pequots, are parallel to state courts in some ways.
They both have a discovery process, during which attorneys gather and share information, and statutes of limitations, which mandate a time period within which someone can make a legal claim.
Acevedo said awards on lawsuits range from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands for the casino, which generated $760 million last year.
New Yorkers make up about 17 percent of the 30,000 or so who visit Mohegan Sun daily, Acevedo said.
Dennis Ferdon, a Connecticut attorney, said many lawyers refuse to take on cases in tribal courts because the awards are so low, which may explain why few attorneys have returned Meoni's calls for help.
"If you fall in Foxwoods or any other Indian casino, and you go through tribal court, that's the end of it," said Jeff Benedict, a candidate for Congress who wrote "Without Reservation," a book critical of the Mashantucket Pequots and Foxwoods. "There is no appeal to a U.S. court. A lot of people don't understand that when they walk into these casinos there are different laws. It's a different world."
As in state courts, tribal court civil cases are won if one side garners a preponderance of evidence.
Meoni said that burden will be a cinch to meet if she goes before the tribal judges. There were witnesses: her husband, Charles, and another Long Island couple who were walking with the Meonis that night.
She has pictures of herself before the accident displaying a straight, aquiline bridge, and after, with her nose twisted. In addition, her doctor told her her nose would have to be broken again before it can be reconstructed.
Meoni said the pole base she tripped on is black and was set in black pavement in the parking lot.
The bases hold brightly colored poles that mark the path for buses. But the poles were missing that night, she said, adding that Mohegan Sun employees replaced the poles in the markers after she reported her fall.
The base, she said, is about two inches higher than the pavement but was almost invisible that night because of the poor lighting. Meoni also said that she does not consume alcohol or use drugs.
She said casino staff members arranged for her to be taken to a hospital by ambulance and taxied her to an economy hotel for the night, where she waited for the first ferry out of New London.
Their clothes stained with blood, the Meonis were among the most talked-about passengers on the ferry to Orient Point, she recalled.
She said Mohegan Sun staff members essentially shrugged their shoulders when she asked whether she'd be compensated for her injuries. Still, she's determined to get justice.
"This is so emotional for me, you can't imagine," she said. "I've been through hell and back. With us going there and spending all of that money, I should have been taken care of better than that."
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.
The Native perspective
Indianz.com's spin on the same story:
Falling down in casino is tribe's fault
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2001
If someone falls down at a casino or other business on a reservation, it's the tribe's fault but nothing can be done about it.
Or that's at least the picture being painted by Newsday in a piece about a woman's injuries sustained during a visit to the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut. Employees, said the aggrieved, weren't too comforting of her injuries and said she might not get much compensation if she sought legal action.
The paper ties the treatment to sovereign immunity but doesn't directly point out how employee action is related to tribal sovereignty. Off-reservation businesses, too, are loathe to admit liability claims but the issue isn't discussed.
The idea that an Indian reservation is "a different world" is the stereotype here. There's a subtle implication that Indians don't care about someone's pain as much as "regular" people do. That Indians aren't quite as good as us Americans.
The facts about tribal sovereignty
The facts about Indian gaming
. . .
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