Smith v. RJ Reynolds. $27 Million Victory, But a Bigger Lesson Still: What it Takes to be a Trial Lawyer
Congratulations to Rick Diaz, J.B. Harris, and Robert Trammell — trial counsel for Emmon Smith — in their victory against RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. They successfully “slayed the dragon,” obtaining a verdict of $30 million, with a judgment amount of $27 million, in favor of Mr. Smith. This was an Engle class action case on behalf of Mr. Smith, a lifelong smoker diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992. Mr. Smith started smoking as a child in the 1930s. He is from Cottondale, Florida. The case was tried in Mariana, the county seat of Jackson County, Florida.
It was an epic battle. Lead trial attorney Rick Diaz showed courage and humility in his march to victory. Rick came to me several years ago wanting to be part of a tobacco trial. I had several cases in which to engage him. The Smith case was not one of them at the time. Rick signed on as co-counsel in two other tobacco cases.
But due to circumstances a couple years later, an opportunity presented itself in the Smith case. It would turn out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.
Rick needed little persuasion from me. He agreed to share in the cost burden and accepted his role as trial counsel. He attacked the case head on. He immersed himself in the cause, learning all he could about these cases, jury selection, and the immense history of cigarettes in the United States. He learned of the conspiracy, including decades of fake research, fraud, and deceit funded by the tobacco industry. With a passion to correct a historical injustice, Rick took charge and pushed with all his might against the immeasurable wealth and power of RJ Reynolds and its attorneys.
After multiple continuances, the case finally went to trial on March 5, 2012. Today, March 28, 2012, a Jackson County jury made history, awarding $10 million in compensatory damages, placing 70% of the blame on RJ Reynolds for its negligence, defective product, and conspiracy to commit fraud, and then awarding $20 million in punitive damage. The jury was courageous, led by Mr. Smith’s courageous trial team. This included JB Harris and his unyielding energy and smarts. It also included Bob Trammell, a man of strength and character with an inimitable feel for the human condition.
I am honored to have shared this experience with Rick, JB, and Robert. Our firm first engaged in this representation over four years ago. From the start, we identified Mr. Smith as a worthy plaintiff. I am humbled by Emmon Smith’s courage and perseverance.
The story of fraud and conspiracy, death and injury, perpetrated by RJ Reynolds and the other major American tobacco companies is one we should never forget. It reminds us of the depths of human greed, and the damage American corporations are capable of if left unchecked by our justice system, our government, and our press. Thankfully, we live in a country that is equipped to keep our most powerful corporations in line. No one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.
Rick Diaz not only proved his case. He proved what it is to be a true trial lawyer. There are many people who call themselves trial lawyers. But only a select few merit the title. To be a trial lawyer is to have courage, a willingness to pursue justice, no matter the price in personal sacrifice. Rick answered the call. In the process, he served Mr. Smith brilliantly. But he also carried the torch of justice for all of us, all Americans who, without the trial bar, would be left powerless to stand up against unbridled power.
The next time you hear someone denigrate the legal profession, remember that there are trial lawyers out there like Rick Diaz. These are people willing to fight for a principle, against the odds and despite the risks. To be sure, trial lawyers sign up for legal fees and rarely work for free. But very few persuade a jury unless their heart is in the fight, and unless their motivations are true, their intentions pure. Juries are brilliant. They see through it most of the time. When an advocate has the true grit of a true trial lawyer, when he or she is a true beacon of justice and hope for the common man, the jury knows.
The Smith jury knew about Rick Diaz and his client. And so they did justice. The facts were there, and so was the soul of a true trial lawyer.
Rick Diaz: thank you! You restore my faith in our system, and in what it means to be a trial lawyer.