A recent Daily Business Review story by Raychel Lean, “In Rare News for Plaintiffs Lawyers, Miami Attorney Stages Fee Fight Against Big Tobacco – And Wins $2.4 Million” reports that the first court order sanctioning a Florida Engle progeny defendant with attorney fees has landed, and it’s causing a stir. Four years after R.J. Reynolds refused a $250,000 settlement offer, Coral Gables attorney Richard J. Diaz secured a $2.4 million fee award for his client — more than double the $1 million in compensation jurors awarded at trial.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alan Fine awarded the fees, along with $117,500 in costs, after a Zoom bench trial. It’s an outcome that Diaz says shows just how stubborn tobacco giants can be in defending themselves from lawsuits over smoking-related illnesses and could even signal a new era of reckoning for the industry.
Of the roughly 150 Engle plaintiffs who could have fought for fees thus far, 145 of them settled, according to Diaz, who said that’s often because plaintiffs lawyers don’t keep time records the way defense firms do. But that could change, as Diaz says he’s received an influx of calls from plaintiffs attorneys now inspired to push harder for fees.
“I think this now has motivated a lot of plaintiffs lawyers to stop settling these fee claims and start fighting them because they’re realizing that they’re leaving half a million to a million dollars on the table every time,” Diaz said. “Then the counter effect, I think, will be that they [tobacco defendants] will be more reasonable and, ultimately, we’ll be able to settle more of these claims. But sometimes they’ve got to get hit too many times to realize they’re getting hit, and then they’ll back down.”
This case revolved around Stefanny Sommers, who sued in 2008 on behalf of her husband Bert Sommers, a wealthy lawyer and real estate developer. He died in 2007 after smoking for decades and suffered from multiple smoking-related diseases. The case meandered through the courts and changed hands with various lawyers before Diaz came aboard in 2014. He almost went straight to trial, but litigation stalled after jurors were blocked from considering punitive damages. After about three years, Sommers opted to try the case while the appeal continued to play out.
It was a “royal nightmare” figuring out how many hours had been spent on the case, according to Diaz, as plaintiffs lawyers don’t normally keep meticulous records. It meant opening every email and attachment, combing through phone records and filings, and being deposed. One lawyer even shut down his practice for two weeks to reconstruct his bills, but Diaz said it was worth the effort.
“Out of those 150 opportunities to get huge fee awards from the defendants, only about five times have lawyers challenged it because it is so labor intensive,” Diaz said. ”The tradition has been to kind of just take whatever you think you can get and the numbers are what they are, but I made a decision a year ago that I was going to take them on, fight them and see what I could do.”
Diaz said he now requires his team to use billing software, having estimated that they missed out on at least 10% of their fees because of a lack of meticulous business records. “It taught us a lesson. This will not happen again,” Diaz said. “They won’t have the ability to attack whether the records were sufficiently accurate, contemporaneous and complete."