U.S. Supreme Court rules Tunica-Biloxi employees can be sued

Tribe’s ‘sovereign immunity’ does not cover workers

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Connecticut case has also cleared the way for the family of a 2013 traffic accident victim to include employees of the Paragon Casino Resort in a suit seeking damages for his death.

All parties in the local case agreed that a Native American tribe and its tribal enterprises enjoy sovereign immunity -- meaning they cannot be sued without their consent. However, the question of whether that immunity extends to tribal employees on duty was unclear until the U.S. Supreme Court said “No” in late April.

The suit before the court was entitled Lewis v. Clarke, and involved a limousine driver employed by the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The Tunica-Biloxi appeal on the same issue -- Tunica-Biloxi Gaming Authority, et al v. Zachary Zaunbrecher, et al -- was attached to that precedent-setting ruling on May 1.

Coincidentally, the Mohegan Tribe is now managing the Paragon Casino. The two tribes had no working arrangement at the time of either incident.

In the Mohegan case, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the tribe that the employee was covered by the tribe’s immunity. In the Tunica-Biloxi case, the state Supreme Court upheld a 3rd Circuit ruling that sovereign immunity did not apply to casino employees.


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing the opinion for the Lewis v Clarke case, said Indian tribes are entitled to immunity from suit. However, she noted that “in a suit brought against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest and the tribe’s sovereign immunity is not implicated.”

She wrote that tribal sovereign immunity cannot be invoked just because the employee alleged to have caused damages to the person filing the suit “was acting within the scope of his employment at the time.”

She pointed out that tribal immunity will apply to a tribal officer acting in his official capacity, but “it is simply not present when the claim is made against those employees in their individual capacities.”

The Zaunbrecher family’s suit against David’s estate, both families’ insurance companies and the casino employees is set for trial in 12th Judicial District Court on Oct. 31.


The events in this case occurred July 10, 2013 when, it is alleged, Paragon bartender Marissa Martin continued to serve alcohol to an intoxicated customer, Leo David. After 12 hours of “intense binge drinking,” David was confronted by security guards Jeremy Ponthieux and Nathan Ponthier, who told him he had to leave the premises, Baton Rouge attorney Robert Marionneaux Jr. wrote in his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Zaunbrechers’ position.

The two security guards “physically escorted David from the casino and forced him into his automobile,” Marionneaux added.

David initially drove south on La. Hwy 1, then turned around and proceeded north. A few miles from the casino, his 2001 Toyota Tundra crossed the center line and collided head-on with a vehicle driven by Blake Zaunbrecher. Both men were killed in the accident.

The suit against David’s estate was filed on behalf of Zaunbrecher’s minor son and other family members on July 24, 2013, naming David’s estate and insurance companies for David and Blake Zaunbrecher as defendants. The suit was amended July 14, 2014 to include the three employees and the Tunica-Biloxi Gaming Authority/Paragon Casino Resort.

The district court ruled May 18, 2015 that the tribe, casino and its employees should be dismissed from the suit due to the tribe’s sovereign immunity.

That decision was appealed to the 3rd Circuit, who ruled Dec. 9, 2015 that “sovereign immunity in this case does not bar the suit against the Paragon Casino employees in their individual capacities.”

The state Supreme Court refused to hear the tribe’s appeal, allowing the 3rd Circuit ruling to stand.

{Editor’s Note: This article cites a civil lawsuit and is not intended to favor one party over another. A suit gives only one side of a dispute and is not evidence that those claims are correct. All parties in a suit present evidence to support their position or dispute the claims of other parties during trial. A judge and/or jury will render a decision based on the facts presented at trial.}


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