J.B. Harris ’81 took on big tobacco for a minister who’d lost a lung to cancer—and won.
There’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into the neck of an opponent and not letting go, says J.B. Harris ’81.
The defense team for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company learned that last year, when Harris, a personal injury attorney in Miami, represented Emmon Smith, a tall, septuagenarian reverend who started smoking at age 13 and by high school was addicted. In 1991 Smith lost a lung due to cancer and was from then on plagued with health problems.
As part of a nine-member trial team, Harris argued that the cigarette maker had marketed to African Americans like Smith, and for decades “engaged in a campaign that was nothing short of the final solution, in my opinion,” Harris said. The verdict returned in Smith’s favor for $27 million in damages, the largest award in the history of Jackson County, Fla., where Smith lived.
The small, scrappy group of Miami lawyers defeated the large, moneyed defense of the cigarette maker. “We were the team that was expected to lose,” Harris says, “and we came in there and rang their bell.”
This is his mission in life, and he does not mince words about it. At 54, Harris is dedicated to fighting the cigarette industry, he says, because it is “an industry built on death, disease and addiction.”
There was no clear indication that a political science major and lacrosse player named Jonathan B. Harris would end up in the courtroom. While at Drew, Harris thought he might become a writer; he recalls two professors, Jane Cole and Joan Steiner, who taught him how to write, and in doing so, how to think.
He became convinced that law was the right path, with some blunt advice from his mother. “She said, ‘You’re not going to be a doctor because you’re not good at science. You’re not going to be an accountant because you aren’t good at math,’” Harris recalls. “So law was the next best thing.”
But as he navigated his law education and budding career after Drew, there was a point when he considered quitting.
A landmark 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision allowed Harris and hundreds of other lawyers to represent individuals in suits against the cigarette industry, “I finally found what I wanted to do,” Harris says.
There was an orphan case that other lawyers had passed up: Emmon Smith’s.
The case wrapped in everything that Harris has found he enjoys, at a core level, about practicing law. Here was Smith, a well-respected reverend in a rural southern town, who served in the military, who had a family and lived in the home he grew up in, who lost a lung to cancer, who had an opportunity to be compensated by the industry that Harris says wronged him; and nobody but Harris would represent him. When the verdict was returned in Smith’s favor, Harris says there was elation, relief, vindication and “a sense that justice had been done.” Smith died six months later at age 80.
The verdict is being appealed—pro forma for the cigarette industry, Harris says.
He intends to try three more cases against the cigarette industry this year, and another three next year.
The opportunity to try the cases is unique in history and, Harris says, fitting for his personality.
“You can use the metaphors you want for litigation being a cage match, et cetera,” Harris says. “There’s nothing bloodier than a fight to the finish in a tobacco case.”