The Tenacious Litigator

J.B. Harris ’81 took on big tobacco for a minister who’d lost a lung to cancer—and won.

By Dustin Racioppi

There’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into the neck of an opponent and not letting go, says J.B. Harris.

A political science major, Harris initially thought about becoming a writer.

A political science major, Harris initially thought about becoming a writer. Photo courtesy J.B. Harris.

Harris, a personal injury attorney in Miami, made that lesson clear last year to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco when he represented septuagenarian Emmon Smith. Smith, who was addicted to smoking by high school, lost a lung to cancer in 1991.

As part of a nine-member trial team, Harris argued 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.” The verdict returned in Smith’s favor for $27 million in damages.

This is Harris’ mission in life. At 54, he is dedicated to fighting the cigarette industry because it is built, he says, “on death, disease and addiction.”

When a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision allowed lawyers to represent individuals in suits against the cigarette industry, there was an orphan case others had passed up: Emmon Smith’s. The case wrapped in everything that Harris has found he enjoys, at a core level, about practicing law. Smith was a well-respected reverend in a rural southern town who had served in the military, raised a family in the home he grew up in and had an opportunity to be compensated by the industry that Harris says wronged him.

When the verdict returned in Smith’s favor, Harris says there was elation, 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 industry this year, and another three next year.

The opportunity to try the cases is fitting for his personality. “You can use the metaphors you want for litigation being a cage match,” Harris says. “There’s nothing bloodier than a fight to the finish in a tobacco case.”

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