Lewis v. Clarke: James Harrington Wins a Landmark Supreme Court Decision

The Case Brief:

Attorney James Harrington - Supreme Court

On October 22, 2011, Brian and Michelle Lewis were operating a motor vehicle on Interstate 95 in Norwalk, Connecticut. As traffic slowed ahead of them, Brian Lewis brought his vehicle to a halt.

Suddenly, a limousine traveling at approximately 75 miles per hour struck their car from the rear. The force of the impact caused Lewis's vehicle to lift off the ground and land on top of a nearby jersey barrier. Brian Lewis sustained a head injury and Michelle Lewis suffered a facial fracture.

The Mohegan Sun Casino owned the limousine that struck the Lewises' vehicle. One of the casino’s employees, William Clarke, drove it. The Mohegan Casino is owned and operated by the Mohegan Tribe, a federally recognized Indian nation.

Mr. Clarke was transporting casino patrons to their homes, some 60 miles from the Mohegan reservation. Nonetheless, the Lewises' vehicle had never reached the Mohegan reservation.

James Harrington of Polito & Harrington represented the Lewises and brought suit on their behalf against William Clarke, alleging his individual negligence in the Connecticut Superior Court.

Subsequently, Clarke moved to dismiss the case because his employer’s sovereign immunity from suit extended to him, even though Mohegan was not the responsible party. Typically, plaintiffs cannot sue an Indian Nation in state court.

The Lewises countered that because they sued Clarke individually and did not seek damages from the tribe, but Clarke himself, immunity did not attach. The court denied Clarke’s motion. Clarke appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which reversed this decision.

Attorney Harrington, along with Attorney Eric Miller of Perkins Coie, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision. To note, The U.S. Supreme Court receives approximately 6,000 petitions each year and only agrees to hear about 60 cases.

The Supreme Court granted Lewises's petition, marking the first time the Court has agreed to review a decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court in over a decade. The Court officially heard the case on January 9, 2017.

On April 25, in a rare, unanimous 8-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Connecticut Supreme Court, handing the Lewises’ case, and victims of tribal and casino employees’ negligence nationwide, a major legal victory.

The reversal represents a landmark decision, with a national impact on tribal sovereign immunity and casino accidents for generations to come.

The Major Takeaways:

This legal victory was particularly important for many reasons. Unlike other cases we have taken to court, this required us to petition the attention of the Supreme Court.

Among other things, the Lewis v. Clarke case set a great legal precedent that courts will follow for years to come.

The Complicated Topic of Tribal Immunity

The United States has a painfully complex relationship with Native Americans, colloquially referred to as “Indians.” From the country's colonial era to modern times, the government forced all Native American nations to resettle as it annexed more states to the union.

Even in the heated climax of the United States’ dealings with the Native American nations, the government maintained that the tribes enjoy some autonomy while still living within the country's borders.

In the 20th century, U.S. courts began to uphold tribal immunity for Native Americans, resulting in numerous courts refusing to hear cases regarding Native Americans.

The Lewis v. Clarke case revisited this complicated topic, creating doubt that the Supreme Court would even hear the case. Fortunately, the Court made the right decision.

While the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision approved Clarke’s request to dismiss the case, likely due to the red tape surrounding tribal immunity, The U.S. Supreme Court made the right call.

In its unanimous decision, The Supreme Court held that tribal immunity from the Mohegan Sun Casino did not transfer to William Clarke. Thus, he bore liability for the severe injuries he caused to Brian and Michelle Lewis.

Thus, our work allowed us to set a legal precedent in one of the most complicated legal matters in this country's history and simultaneously earn justice on behalf of the plaintiff.

The Intervention of the Supreme Court

Again, The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t hear many cases. Since the passing of the “Judges Bill” in 1925, the Supreme Court has had free reign to choose any case they wanted and create their own workloads.

That the Supreme Court agreed to hear Lewis v. Clarke was remarkable.

They also knew the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision was a great injustice.

Polito & Harrington fought hard, and in a very rare occurrence, the Supreme Court remedied the situation and granted justice to the plaintiff.

The Judicial System Has Proven Effective

Lesser courts have denied the rights of citizens many times. These people, with a glimmer of hope, strive to have The Supreme Court hear their cases. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

Nonetheless, the Lewis v. Clarke case proved that jurisprudence can work with the right persistence.

Even if a case doesn’t reach the Supreme Court, a relentless and skilled attorney with the appropriate resources can help clients navigate the challenges of court appeals when they are denied justice.

The Attorney You Choose Has a Major Impact on Your Case

James Harrington Supreme Court

This case, more than anything, proved that the attorney you choose will play an integral role in the outcome of your case. Different lawyers will offer different opinions about how to deal with the dismissal of a particular case.

Some lawyers urge their clients to give up, while others offer the hope of an appeal with higher courts. We’re grateful that the Lewises chose to hire our award-winning law firm and allowing us to see their case through to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When hiring a lawyer for your personal injury case, always ask for an honest opinion into how your claim will play out. You should also talk about the steps you need to take if a court dismisses your case or decides against you.

Does Your Case Fall in the Realm of Tribal Law?

Tribal law is a complicated matter that many U.S. attorneys won’t deal with. If your lawsuit is entangled in these matters, hire an award-winning team of lawyers, like Polito & Harrington, to give you the best shot of achieving justice.