UPDATED 2:32 PM: Rep. Fitzenhagen temporarily postponed the bill. No explanation given, but two sources have speculated she may not have been aware that her employer had 121 cases directly affected by HB 6011, and wanted more time to gather information before deciding whether or not to recuse herself.
To recuse or not recuse? That is the question for State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen as she prepares to chair the House Subcommittee on Civil Justice and Claims, which will take up House Bill 6011, a controversial proposal aimed at forcing tobacco companies to pony up massive amounts of cash before they can appeal a verdict in Engle Progeny tobacco liability cases.
Fitzenhagen’s law firm, Morgan and Morgan, just happens to have a lot of Engle Progeny plaintiffs – 121 in all – and it’s that eye-popping number that has industry watchers wondering if Fitzenhagen is really going to try and pretend that she’s somehow adequately “firewalled” from these cases inside the walls of Morgan and Morgan.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the general rule of thumb for conflicts of interest in most states is that lawmakers ought not to vote on bills that affect them in particular, but they should be free to work on bills that affect an industry of which they’re a part.
It’s hard to see how Fitzenhagen could argue that HB 6011 wouldn’t affect her in particular, since her employer stands to reap a substantial financial windfall from 121 tobacco litigation cases. Repealing the bond limits, as HB 6011 would do, puts massive financial pressure on the defendants to avoid appealing verdicts. That’s exactly what a trial law firm like Morgan and Morgan wants.