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Bedbug case against Barona tribe lingers

Since 2005, a pair who stayed at an Indian resort have fought the tribal judicial court for compensation.

June 08, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — When Gloria and Robert Chisley went to the Barona Resort & Casino in Lakeside in August 2005, they were hoping for a weekend of fun.

Instead, they say, they were attacked by bedbugs while they slept.

They reported the bites the next morning to hotel operators, who called paramedics.

For the three years since, the Chisleys have been seeking compensation from the tribal justice system for the physical and psychological pain that Gloria Chisley says she still suffers.

As Indian casinos and hotels have become a larger part of the recreational landscape, the interplay between the general public and tribal justice has become more frequent and, as in Gloria Chisley's case, contentious.

"Most people don't realize that when you go to an Indian casino, it's like entering a foreign country where you have very few rights," said Chisley's attorney, LaToya S. Redd of Bonita.

The Chisleys have concluded that the system is rigged against them, citing as evidence that the judge who heard their case was a tribal attorney.

Now they're trying to interest the 4th District Court of Appeal in overseeing the case.

"I don't feel I'll ever be over this," said Gloria Chisley, 59, an assistant administrator with the Fresno school system. "I'm afraid of every bug I see, I don't care how big. I'm not the same person I was."

Redd has tried unsuccessfully to wrest the case away from the tribal system and into state court. But the bid was rejected last year by Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith, who said the matter belongs in tribal court.

When Redd discovered that Goldsmith had taken political contributions from nine Indian tribes, including the Barona tribe, she filed a petition to have his decision thrown out on grounds that he should have disqualified himself. The petition was turned down by the California Supreme Court.

Goldsmith has since taken a leave of absence to run for San Diego city attorney. He and incumbent Mike Aguirre are set for a November runoff.

The Barona tribe declined to allow its lawyers to discuss the bedbug case. But the tribe's case is laid out forcefully in courtroom papers.

The tribe disputes Gloria Chisley's contention that she was attacked by bedbugs at its hotel, suggesting instead that her marks were the result of scabies, a condition that would have taken weeks to develop before Chisley showed the marks to hotel employees.

Doctors who have examined Chisley are split on the cause of her marks -- one saying bedbugs and two scabies.

In court papers, the tribe presented statistics to show that about half the hotel guests and others who seek damages from the tribe have won their cases.

Redd disputes that and says the tribe is working to keep the case and the tribal justice system from being reviewed by outside judges. Written arguments are due June 17 in the appeals court in San Diego.

Redd is hoping a ruling in another case, which held that the state system has a right to check tribal-system decisions for fairness, persuades the justices to override the Goldsmith decision.

"It's been three years of torture for Gloria," Redd said. "She's had thoughts of suicide. She wants her day in court; she wants to tell her story."

As part of their compacts with the state government, tribes must declare what kind of system they prefer to adjudicate claims against them. The three basic options are mandatory arbitration, state courts or tribal courts. The Barona tribe chose tribal courts.

Barona initially submits claims like Chisley's to its insurance carrier. That carrier turned down Chisley's claim in mid-2006, leading the family to litigate through the tribal court.

Bedbugs are tiny, nocturnal insects that live by sucking blood from animals. They produce a numbing agent that keeps their victims from feeling the attack, and most people sleep through the bites, entomologists say.

Although not known to carry disease, bedbugs have annoyed humans for centuries. They were a scourge in the United States, particularly in large cities, until the development of powerful pesticides. In recent years, however, they've made a comeback, particularly in motels and hotels, because of environmental restrictions on the use of pesticides. In 2003, a brother and sister received $372,000 in punitive damages after being bitten by bedbugs at a Motel 6 in Chicago.

Gloria Chisley said 100-plus bug bites left scars on her face, neck, chest, thighs, buttocks and genital area. She said she still suffers from itching and scabbing. The couple's once robust sex life has been damaged because she does not want to be touched, according to court documents.

"This is the kind of ordeal you don't get over," she said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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