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Mohegan Sun casino lawsuit still in play; Does immunity extend to last 3 defendants?

Byline: Gary V. Murray

WORCESTER - In the wake of an appellate court ruling that state courts lack jurisdiction over personal injury lawsuits against the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, a judge will be asked next week to dismiss claims against three remaining defendants in one such suit

Sheila I. Buzulis of Millbury alleged in a civil suit filed in 2004 in Central District Court that she suffered "severe, permanent and painful injuries" on the morning of July 7, 2002, while she was a patron at the casino in Uncasville, Conn., which is owned and run by the Mohegan Indian tribe. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Buzulis was retrieving her coat from a coat room when a female security guard, responding to a call for assistance from a nearby ladies' room, ran into her and pushed her aside.

Named as defendants in the suit, which included claims of negligence, deceit, assault and battery and willful, wanton and reckless conduct, were the Mohegan Sun casino, also known as the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and the Mohegan Tribe; Mary Lou Morrissette, director of risk management for the casino; the casino's risk management department; and the female security guard identified only as Jane Doe.

On Nov. 16, 2004, Judge Dennis J. Brennan, who has since retired, allowed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the defendants' lawyers, Michael S. Ferguson and Andrew Houlding. The judge found that Massachusetts' courts lacked jurisdiction over personal injury claims against the casino because of its "tribal sovereign immunity" and that such tort claims had to be brought before the Tribal Gaming Disputes Court.

Ms. Buzulis and her husband, Michael, who filed a lack of consortium claim as part of the lawsuit, appealed the dismissal to the state Appeals Court.

The Appeals Court concurred that the Mohegan tribe was recognized as an Indian tribe by both the federal government and the state of Connecticut and, as such, had tribal sovereign immunity that precluded Ms. Buzulis and her husband from bringing their claims in a court other than the Tribal Gaming Disputes Court.

"The casino enjoys sovereign immunity and the suit against it was rightly dismissed. The proper forum for suit to be brought was the Gaming Disputes Court, within the applicable period established by the Mohegan Tribe," the court wrote in an opinion issued last August.

As part of her lawsuit, Ms. Buzulis alleged that she called Ms. Morrissette a week after she was injured to ask about filing a personal injury claim against the casino. Ms. Morrissette, according to Ms. Buzulis, failed to inform her that a personal injury claim had to be filed in the Gaming Disputes Court within nine months.

Lawyers for the casino contend, however, that Ms. Buzulis and her husband lost the opportunity to bring their case to the tribal court because of their lawyer's failure to follow through with a promised letter of representation in a timely fashion.

The Appeals Court rejected arguments by the couple's lawyer, Bernard A. Kansky, that the casino effectively waived sovereign immunity by actively advertising and directing its marketing in Massachusetts.

The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against Mohegan Sun, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and the Mohegan tribe, but overturned Judge Brennan's dismissal of the claims against the remaining three defendants because of questions over whether Ms. Morrissette and Ms. Doe were actually casino employees and whether the risk management department was an official casino entity.

"As there is nothing on the record, however, indicating the status of the remaining defendants in relation to the casino, the allowance of the motion to dismiss in regard to them was premature," the court wrote.

The Appeals Court sent the case back to Central District Court to determine whether the immunity from suit enjoyed by the casino extends to the three remaining defendants.

Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Houlding contend that it does and have filed supporting affidavits and a motion to dismiss the claims against the remaining defendants. Judge Thomas F. Sullivan Jr. is scheduled to hold a hearing on the motion Thursday.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 22, 2008
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