Regina Strickland was injured so badly in a fall at an American Indian-run water slide north of San Diego that she says doctors told her she can no longer have children.
She got an apology but no offer to pay her thousands of dollars in medical bills. So she sued. But the tribe had a surprise in store. It filed legal papers noting that it was immune from lawsuits. The court agreed and dismissed the case.
Across Southern California, other would-be litigants have learned the hard way that they cannot recover damages from Indian tribes: The family of a dead boater. The woman who said she fell off a chair at a bingo parlor. The employee who lodged a civil rights claim. Each, like numerous others, summarily bounced out of court.
U.S. law deems Indian tribes sovereign powers, thereby shielding them from all injury lawsuits by non-tribal members.
The tribes have quietly enjoyed the legal perk for 50 years. Now, as federal funding wanes and alternative forms of income become imperative, Southern California tribes are embracing lucrative businesses that increase the rate of contact between Indians and outsiders.
As a result, accidents and disputes connected with those businesses--and lawsuits that often follow--are rising. Dozens of cases already are on record in courts throughout Southern California.
A main question on the reservation and in legal circles is whether the shield of immunity has become a historical relic that unfairly punishes unwitting outsiders--or whether it is essential to protect limited tribal assets and to guard against the loss of cultural identity.
Tom Wenbourne, a lawyer in El Cajon, represented a woman who broke her leg when she slipped and fell on a just-mopped floor at an Indian bingo hall. Although insurance paid for the woman's medical bills, she sued to recover lost wages, but could not when the case was dismissed on grounds of tribal immunity, he said.
"There needs to be some type of exception for these going Indian concerns actually out there making a profit," Wenbourne said.
"I think it's totally unfair," he said, referring to Indian immunity. "The purpose behind tort law," legal jargon for personal injury lawsuits, "is to protect individuals. If (Indians) have immunity, they have no incentive to protect people. Maybe if they would have some exposure," meaning legal liability, "they would be more careful."
In numerous interviews, Indians and their lawyers said tribes themselves wrestle with the competing notions of being fair to outsiders yet protecting what they have, said Eugene Madrigal, an attorney and Indian from the Cahuilla Reservation in Riverside County.
The issue "goes to the heart of Indian existence" as a separate government, he said.
Allowing an outsider who suffers an accident in Indian country to take a tribe to court can seem like an act of submission to outside dominion, an act history has taught the tribes to avoid, experts said.
What is clearly without question is that the tribes are in the midst of an unprecedented drive to make money. Wooing trash dumps, building enormous gaming parlors, running marinas, even operating water slides, Indians on the 30 or so Southern California reservations have made "economic development" tribal bywords.
Behind the tribes' drive is a hard truth. Over the past 15 years, the federal government has, in effect, cut the funding it provides them. Meanwhile, the tribes need cash to pay for the basic services they each render as distinct governments of their own.
In fiscal 1991, federal spending on American Indians totaled $3.4 billion, up $700 million from the year before, according to statistics from the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. When adjusted for inflation, that sum is nearly 40% less than the dollars allocated in fiscal 1975, according to a Congressional Research Service study.
"We know those dollars are getting thinner and thinner from D.C.," said Dennis Miller, chairman of the Morongo tribe in Riverside County, east of Banning. "So if we are going to do something, we need to look to ourselves to get it done."
Some tribes have gotten it done so well that they can boast of significant assets.
In San Diego County just east of El Cajon, the Sycuan Reservation sports a 55,000-square-foot, salmon pink, V-shaped casino. Built last year to replace a bingo hall put up in 1983, the casino draws about 3,000 per day, more on weekends, for poker, bingo and off-track betting, tribal Chairman Dan Tucker said.
He also said that the casino netted $600,000 in a recent month. Last month, each of the 30 or so adult members of the 96-member tribe was handed a $1,500 quarterly check.
The Morongo offer bingo, too. The Morongo also run a sand and gravel pit and lease billboard space along Interstate 10, which bisects the 36,000-acre reservation, Miller said.
Plans are in the works for an RV center and a truck stop along the freeway, Miller said. Annual net revenues are expected "very soon" to top $1 million, he said.