J.B.Harris, P.A., and Richard J. Diaz, P.A., have joined forces to form Diaz & Harris, P.A., in Coral Gables, a firm dedicated exclusively to pursuing individual Engle progeny claims against the cigarette industry. Joining them as an associate will be the firm of Carlos Santisteban, Jr., P.A.
Employing top experts from around the country in the areas of cigarette history and design, nicotine addiction, psychology, forensic medicine, pulmonology, pathology and oncology, Diaz & Harris are prepared to go toe-to-toe with cigarette makers on behalf of their clients. These specialists include Dr. Robert Proctor, a tenured professor at Stanford University and author of “Golden Holocaust;” Dr. David Burns, a pulmonologist and contributing author of various Surgeon General’s reports; Dr. Tonya Werner and Dr. Michael Cummings, experts in nicotine addiction; and Dr. Roland Schwarting, a top pathologist.
J.B. Harris, a veteran products liability attorney, has been a consumer advocate from day one. Throughout his career, he has represented plaintiffs seriously injured or killed by defective products and the negligence of others. Today, he focuses solely on tobacco litigation.
“Working with our clients – breaking bread with them, praying with them, watching them die – is an organic, visceral, often gut-wrenching experience,” Harris said. “Yet tobacco litigation is one of the most complex and intellectually challenging experiences, as well. It has become my mission to hold tobacco companies liable for ruining the lives of smokers and their families by selling an addictive and defective product.”
Harris grew up in rural South Carolina, where his physician father would make house calls to poor, typically African- American families, who were otherwise unable to make it to, or afford, a doctor. Harris sometimes accompanied his father, who was often paid with produce and white lightning, on these visits. It was during this time that Harris gained a greater understanding of race relations, especially in the rural South, and later became a champion for minority causes throughout his practice.
“Many of our clients are underprivileged minorities who cigarette manufacturers targeted through their advertising and marketing campaigns,” noted Harris. “We also represent a generation of smokers who went off to fight wars for this country. Their rations included free cigarettes given to them by the tobacco companies. Upon their return, they were addicted. From the 1930s until the 1990s, more than 20 million Americans have died from smoking – more Americans than have died in all U.S. wars combined.”
Harris credits his former employer and mentor, Ron Motley, for inspiring him to sue cigarette makers. In 1994, Motley led a group of attorneys retained by the 50 states Attorneys General to sue Big Tobacco for billions of dollars in unreimbursed Medicaid expenses due to uninsured individuals made sick from addiction to cigarettes. The case became the basis of the famous Al Pacino and Russell Crowe movie, “The Insider.” Ron Motley represented the courageous whistleblower, Dr. Jeffery Wigand, an industry insider who revealed the chemistry behind cigarette manufacture and design.
In 1998, the tobacco industry entered into a Master Settlement Agreement with the states that resulted in an unprecedented $250 billion settlement which also mandated that the industry turn over internal documents now totaling more than 70 million. The documents proved that Big Tobacco knew about the hazards of smoking decades before it became publicly known, and conspired to keep the dangers of smoking hidden from the public.
Richard “Rick” J. Diaz’s journey began differently. Diaz was born in Miami, but was educated in Madrid, Spain, under a British school system. Although educated abroad, his family was of modest means. Both of his parents smoked two packs per day and Diaz’s mom suffered from smoking related COPD and passed away when he was young.
“More than anything else, pursuing these cases in my mother’s memory drives me to pursue justice on behalf of my clients against the tobacco industry,” Diaz explained.
Diaz spent nine years as a Miami-Dade police officer and detective working in narcotics before becoming an attorney. “It was a natural progression to go into criminal work after my years on the force,” noted Diaz. “After becoming a lawyer, I spent three weeks a month for a decade chasing cases around the world focusing on high-profile drug targets. But too many inexperienced attorneys were flooding the specialty, and I knew it was time to diversify my practice.”
He was approached to participate in a tobacco trial in 2009. Combining his police background with trial experience made it an easy transition. “Initially I was supposed to be the third chair at the plaintiff ’s table, but two lawyers dropped out and suddenly I became first chair,” recalled Diaz.
Today, Diaz not only works with Harris on tobacco cases, but also continues to work on federal criminal defense cases under his own shingle, Richard J. Diaz, P.A. Additionally, Diaz acts as referral counsel to the Miami-Dade County Police Benevolent Association and handles a significant amount of pro bono cases. In 2007, he argued a free speech case before the United States Supreme Court.
Carlos Santisteban, P.A., the namesake of an independent plaintiff ’s liability firm, also shares office space with Diaz and Harris and has been working closely with them on tobacco cases since 2009. Santisteban will work on future tobacco cases as an associate under the Diaz & Harris banner, while remaining under his own shingle and continuing to work on general commercial litigation and products liability cases.
Engle v. Liggett
Following the Master Settlement Agreement and a series of U.S. Surgeon General Reports detailing the link between smoking and cancer, Miami attorneys Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt filed a first-of-its-kind class action suit against Big Tobacco on behalf of Florida residents injured or killed by cigarettes.
After 12 years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court published an historic opinion that set the precedent for future individual claims against the tobacco companies. Known as the Engle decision, the court upheld a jury’s findings that: (1) cigarette manufacturers placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous; (2) concealed or omitted material information that was not otherwise known or available to the public; (3) conspired to conceal or omit information regarding the health effects and addictive nature of cigarettes; (4) sold or supplied cigarettes that were defective; (5) sold or supplied cigarettes that did not conform to representations of fact made by the cigarette makers; and (6) acted negligently.
While the court upheld the jury’s findings, it also decertified the class, noting that each plaintiff had to prove his or her own individual damages resulting from their addiction to cigarettes. This decision opened the door for the filing of thousands of cases in Florida and provided a niche that Diaz & Harris, P.A., now fills.
Emmon Smith v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company
In the wake of the Florida Supreme Court’s Engle decision, many firms began to file their own Engle progeny cases. It was during one such case that Diaz and Harris first shared the counsel table.
Emmon Smith, a retired African- American Baptist minister from Cottondale, Fla. began smoking handrolled cigarettes at the age of 13. Once addicted, he spent the majority of his life smoking products manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Smith, who tried to quit smoking on several occasions, was unable to succeed until 1992 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As a result, doctors were forced to remove his left lung.
The trial was set to take place in the county seat of Marianna, a town of mostly white, conservative, rural, low-income families who grew up in a tobacco-loving culture. Diaz decided to take a trip to Marianna to get a feel for the area. What he discovered was that Smith was a well-respected citizen of the community.
“This was a small town where a handshake was worth more than any contract,” noted Diaz. “I knew that a jury in the rural part of the state would not tolerate any fraud or deceitful behavior from corporate America. Because the case was reliant on proving that R.J. Reynolds openly lied in their marketing campaigns, and committed fraud, the jury sided with our client, returning with a $27 million award.”
“In retrospect, the case was not without its funny moments,” remembered Harris. “Like the movie ‘My Cousin Vinny,’ a freight train would rumble through town every night at 3 a.m. blowing its whistle, just as we were finally catching some sleep.”
Over the course of the preparation and trial, Diaz and Harris also trusted the hard work of Santisteban. “When I was first pulled into this case as a rookie, I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it,” Santisteban remembered. “I couldn’t understand how to justify a case like this. After traveling to meet Mr. Smith, learning about his life and the extent of the health issues he had endured due to the use of these defective products, I was intrigued.”
On the heels of the largest single plaintiff award in Jackson County history, the team has stuck together, trying two more cases since.
Moving Forward, Looking Back
Since the Smith case, the attorneys have continued to work together on tobacco litigation cases through their own individual firms. The creation of Diaz & Harris, P.A., puts all of their tobacco cases under a single umbrella.
“I never thought I wanted to have a partner,” said Diaz. “But I really connected with J.B. during the Smith trial, and know we make a great team. His historical and institutional knowledge of tobacco litigation is unparalleled and together we provide a solid front to take on even the largest corporations. J.B. has thus far originated all of our 159 tobacco cases, and we look forward to bringing the cigarette companies to justice in the eyes of the law.”
“One of the highlights of my career is the privilege of getting to know and work with Rick,” insisted Harris. “His consummate trial skills and ability to connect with a jury work in tandem with my knowledge of the industry to provide our clients with an experienced team of professionals ready to fight the good fight.”