Judicial District of New London


Tribal Sovereign Immunity; Dram Shop Act; Whether the Doctrine of Tribal Sovereign Immunity Barred the Plaintiffs' Claim that Representatives of the Mohegan Tribe Violated the Dram Shop Act. Emily Vanstaen-Holland and her mother (the plaintiffs) brought this action, alleging that Emily sustained serious injuries when she was struck by an automobile and that, shortly before the accident, the driver of the automobile had consumed large quantities of alcoholic beverages at a bar that is located within the Mohegan Sun Casino. The plaintiffs claimed that the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and several individuals who are affiliated with the bar (collectively, the Mohegan defendants) recklessly served alcoholic beverages to the driver in violation of the Dram Shop Act and the common law. The Mohegan defendants filed a motion to dismiss the claims asserted against them, arguing that they were barred under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity. They maintained that the authority, as an authorized agent of a federally recognized Indian tribe, namely, the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut (tribe), was immune from suit under the doctrine and that the doctrine extended to the individual defendants in their capacities as tribal representatives. The trial court agreed with the Mohegan defendants and granted the motion to dismiss, rejecting the plaintiffs' claim that, through its enactment of 18 U.S.C. 1161, the United States Congress waived tribal sovereign immunity for alcohol related claims. The court explained that, while 1161 authorizes state governments to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol on tribal lands, the statute does not constitute a congressional waiver of tribal sovereign immunity for alcohol related claims that are brought by private citizens. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' contention that the Mohegan Tribe-State of Connecticut Gaming Compact, which governs gaming operations on the tribe's reservation, includes an explicit waiver of tribal sovereign immunity as to alcohol related claims. The court acknowledged that, under the terms of the gaming compact, the tribe agreed that the service of alcoholic beverages within its gaming facilities would be subject to the state's regulations regarding the sale and distribution of liquor. It determined, however, that such consent did not constitute an unequivocal waiver of tribal sovereign immunity for all private actions that involve claims of misconduct regarding the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. It further decided that the individual defendants were immune from the plaintiffs' claims because the plaintiffs had failed to allege that those defendants were not acting as representatives of the tribe during the time in question. In this appeal, the Supreme Court will determine whether the trial court properly granted the Mohegan defendants' motion to dismiss.