TRLF Obtains Significant Settlement for Drunk-Driving Accident Victim

Drunken-driving case is settled by accident victim, Mohegan tribe

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published 01/11/2011 12:00 AM

Attorney for teen may still argue liability aspect

Attorneys for the Mohegan Tribe and a Waterford teenager seriously injured in 2007 when she was hit by an SUV whose driver had been drinking at a Mohegan Sun bar reached a court settlement Monday, the day before an aspect of the case was to be argued before the state Supreme Court.

The parties agreed to keep the amount of the settlement confidential, Robert Reardon Jr., the New London attorney for the victim, Emily Vanstaen-Holland, and her mother, Susan Holland, said.

Reardon was expected to argue today that the tribe is subject to the state's Dram Shop Act, the law that allows victims in drunken-driving accidents to sue the establishment that served the drunken driver. Reardon had appealed New London Superior Court Judge Robert Martin's February 2009 dismissal of his clients' claims against the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and Mohegan tribal officials and employees, including Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum, chairman of the tribal council; Mitchell Etess, the authority's chief executive officer; and Gary Crowder, Mohegan Sun's senior vice president of resort operations.

The plaintiffs' suit against the driver of the Cadillac Escalade that hit Vanstaen-Holland will continue in Superior Court, Reardon said. That driver, Glenn Lavigne, a former Mohegan tribal councilor, pleaded no contest to a charge of evading responsibility, was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2009 and has been paroled.

The suit also names Lavigne's girlfriend at the time, Jane Nelson, who Reardon said was at one time believed to be the driver of the car that struck Vanstaen-Holland as she walked along a road in Quaker Hill.

"At this point, it's a very straightforward suit alleging negligence and recklessness in the operation of a motor vehicle," Reardon said.

Reardon said he negotiated Monday's settlement with Austin McGuigan, senior counsel for Rome McGuigan, the Hartford firm that represented the tribe. McGuigan could not be reached Monday evening.

"We're pleased that the parties involved could solve this amicably," Chuck Bunnell, the tribe's chief of staff, said.

According to Reardon, a hearing on the tribe's claim of sovereign immunity from dram shop and reckless-service-of-alcohol counts might have yielded a significant state Supreme Court decision.

He said he would have argued that Indian tribes have never been granted sovereignty in regard to the possession and dispensing of alcohol. Not until 1953, he said, did federal law allow tribes to possess alcohol on reservation lands and then only in conformity with applicable state law.

"While tribal sovereignty was developed by case law, culminating in a 1918 Supreme Court decision, it's our position that tribes have never had sovereignty when it comes to dispensing alcohol," Reardon said.

Connecticut courts have long ruled that the casino-owning Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes are immune from dram shop claims in state court. While the Mashantuckets' tribal law includes a dram shop statute, the Mohegans' does not. Alcohol-related claims can instead be pursued under a negligence statute in Mohegan court.

Then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had filed a brief in support of Reardon's appeal.

Vanstaen-Holland, who was 16 at the time of the accident, suffered skull and pelvic fractures, a kidney laceration and brain injuries, including a loss of her sense of taste and smell. Now 18 and not fully recovered, she is a student at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, according to Reardon.