Legislator-lawyer seeks delay in death case
By DAN PILLER, STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
Attorneys involved in a lawsuit involving the death of a natural gas field worker in Wise County two years ago are wrangling over the status of state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who has joined the defense team of EnCana Oil & Gas USA and asked for a “legislative leave,” a move that would postpone court dates in the case until 30 days after the Legislature adjourns.
King earlier this month became part of the legal team defending EnCana, based in Alberta, Canada, in a suit filed by the widow and daughters of Tab Dotson, a contract worker killed April 19, 2005, when the forklift he was driving accidentally knocked open a closed gas well in rural Wise County. The ensuing explosion and fire killed Dotson instantly. Another worker was injured.
Dotson’s family alleges that EnCana and its subcontractor, Cudd Pressure Controls, gave Dotson inaccurate information about the well as he prepared a site for a new well. Logs and witness statements say the workers’ employer was told that the well was dead and had no pressure, according to the lawsuit.
Preparations for the case have been proceeding for months. But a long-standing state law allows legislator-lawyers to seek continuances in pending court cases until a current session ends, which is not likely until June. The Dotson family’s attorneys have asked for a hearing on the validity of King’s claim; the matter is set for Monday in Wise County District Court.
“King’s attempt to delay this trial and deny the rights of the family of Tab Dotson are immoral, unethical and not permitted by Texas law,” said Fort Worth lawyer Seth Anderson, representing the Dotson family. Anderson said attempts to reach a settlement with EnCana earlier this month had failed and efforts toward mediation had ended. The case was set for a hearing March 20.
King, in a reply filed along with EnCana lawyer Jason Tillie of Fort Worth, said, “Mr. King intends to participate actively in the preparation and/or presentation of the case and did not take this employment for the purpose of obtaining a continuance.”
In an interview earlier this week, King expressed annoyance with Anderson for objecting to his presence in the case. Anderson filed an affidavit alleging that he and King had discussed the matter months earlier, which in Anderson’s view rendered King ineligible to serve as EnCana’s counsel.
“I’ve done a lot of oil and gas work. I’m perfectly qualified to be the attorney,” said King, who is chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee. “I’m good to go for the trial. I just asked that it be held off until after the session ends.”
According to Texans for Public Justice, 32 lawyer-legislators have used the 76-year-old legislative leave law to obtain 431 court delays in a two-year period studied by the group.
The group’s survey shows that among lawyer-lawmakers, King recorded 53 lawmaker continuances between 2003 and 2006, second only to the 241 continuances by Rep. Roberto Alonzo, a Democrat from Dallas.
King defended his continuance record, saying, “I’m just a sole practitioner. I had a guy hired last year to help in the office when I’m in session, but he quit on me. I have to keep my practice going, and this is the only way to do it.”
Until 2003, such continuances did not have to be disclosed, but complaints about possible abuse of the practice led the Legislature to pass a bill requiring disclosure.