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Seminole Tribe shields against releasing records in Hardrock death

Sisters Bridgette, left, and Rhonda Jackson stand in the front garden of their mother’s home in Ybor City, Tampa. Bridgette is holding paperwork the sisters have collected for their case.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times

Sisters Bridgette, left, and Rhonda Jackson stand in the front garden of their mother’s home in Ybor City, Tampa. Bridgette is holding paperwork the sisters have collected for their case.

TAMPA — Inside the white tower just off Interstate 4, Annie Talley had the Midas touch.

A frequent visitor to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, she sipped sodas and watched single bills become hundreds as she played the Triple Butterfly Sevens and Money Storm slots. Careful not to risk too much, the school cook always cashed out after a big take.

But on a Wednesday night in May 2007, she never made it to the cashier. While the casino buzzed with patrons hoping to win a luxury car giveaway, 55-year-old Talley wobbled into a bathroom and collapsed on the stone floor from a cardiac arrest. Two days later, she died at a nearby hospital.

Convinced that the casino staff didn't do enough to save their mother, Talley's daughters have spent months fighting for reports that might tell them how quickly 911 was called and when CPR began.

Their efforts have been stymied by the Seminole Tribe of Florida's sovereign immunity, a doctrine that shields the tribe from lawsuits, building codes and public records requests — pretty much any laws that aren't its own. It is the same principle the tribe invoked last year to keep reports and 911 tapes related to Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith's death from public view. Smith died at the Hard Rock property in Hollywood.

Rhonda Jackson, Talley's elder daughter, can't believe the tribe is allowed that much power.

"These people are untouchable," she said.

• • •

And rich. Last year, Indian gaming facilities in Florida generated about $1.6-billion in revenue. The Seminole Tribe owns seven of the eight Indian casinos in the state.

Some of that money makes its way to patrons who the tribe decides were injured as the result of negligence on tribal property.

But the tribe doesn't waive immunity even in those cases. Instead, through an insurance company, it voluntarily settles claims that would otherwise be thrown out in a federal or state court. The concessions are part goodwill, part savvy business practice.

"It's more than just an issue of legal liability," said Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. "It's based on the value of the relationships with its customers and knowing how important that is. It's the tribe's intent to be a good neighbor and fair and to deal appropriately with all the customers who come in."

Tampa attorney Jeffrey "Jack" Gordon has brought about a dozen lawsuits against the Seminole Tribe and has gotten settlements in all but two. He said the tribe's insurance adjusters and attorneys usually "do the right thing" for claims where the tribe has clear liability.

But the attorney maintains that casino patrons still have no real recourse under a system that does not provide an independent body, like a jury, to make those calls.

"You're allowing the tribe to self-regulate and decide whether or not they deem a claim worthy," Gordon said. "The same guys that I'm accusing of wrongdoing, they're going to make the decision of whether there's wrongdoing? That's not fair."

• • •

Talley's daughters dispute the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue report that says the casino's first responders performed CPR for eight to 10 minutes before the county emergency workers arrived. Bridgette Jackson, who accompanied her mother to the casino that night, said the first responders ignored her pleas for them to perform CPR and never used the defibrillator they had with them to try and shock Talley's heart back into rhythm.

The tribe refuses to provide them with its own record of the incident. Bitner wouldn't provide the documents to the St. Petersburg Times either, but said the casino's first responders called 911 immediately after being notified about Talley's condition and began CPR soon after getting to the bathroom. He said Talley deteriorated quickly and that Jackson was asked to leave the bathroom to give the workers more space.

Tribe officials said they denied the insurance claim filed by Talley's family after a thorough investigation — which included interviews with the first responders but not Bridgette Jackson — and without regard to the tribe's immunity from legal action.

"Our point of view is that what needed to be done was done," Bitner said.

The family's former attorney sees things differently but said there was nothing more he could do on the case. He needs an act of Congress or an express waiver of immunity from tribe officials to keep a lawsuit from getting thrown out.

"Technically there are options, but in reality there are no options," said attorney Doug Morris, whose firm is in Boca Raton.

Gordon, the Tampa attorney, is trying a new legal strategy. Last week, he sued the Seminole Tribe for negligence on behalf of Christopher Robertson, who claims the Tampa casino staff provided inadequate security and never came to his rescue as he was beaten and knocked unconscious in February 2007.

In the lawsuit, Gordon cites the casino gambling compact forged last year between the tribe and Gov. Charlie Crist, in which the tribe agreed to a limited waiver of its immunity protection against personal injury lawsuits. Though the compact is in dispute after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Crist overstepped his authority by unilaterally entering into it, Gordon argues that the immunity waiver still stands.

"Once you waive it, it's waived," he said. "We'll see how it plays out."

Critics like Gordon hope that at some point, there is wide enough concern in the public over the tribe's sovereign status that federal elected leaders are forced to act.

Until then, Talley's daughters say they will keep seeking answers for the woman they remember for her savory yellow rice and chicken, for the way she sprayed on several designer perfumes at once, for her devotion to her family. The woman who visited the doctor for a physical two weeks before she died, and was told that she had a good heart.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Seminole Tribe shields against releasing records in Hardrock death 11/09/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 11:24pm]

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