On an early summer afternoon, Alex Alvarez is busy preparing for a tobacco trial.
Less than eight months in, 2018 has proved a busy year for the Coral Gables litigator, who in the last three decades has transformed himself from beat cop to detective to giant in South Florida legal circles. His victories this year alone are more than some attorneys count in entire careers, earning Alvarez a reputation as a champion of smokers litigating against tobacco companies.
But early on, a storied career seemed unlikely for a man with Alvarez’s origin story.
“Lawyers think they work for the endgame to make money, and that’s not what you work for,” he said. “You work for your client.”
It’s a lesson Alvarez first learned as a 19-year-old policeman serving and protecting his community, and then later, as an attorney representing clients suffering debilitating diseases. And that attitude has brought him a slew of victories.
In 2015, he was on a team of lawyers grabbing headlines for winning a $14.5 million verdict for a Weston cancer patient who had smoked for 30 years. For that case, Alvarez teamed with attorneys Michael Olin, Randy Rosenblum and Carlos Velasquez.
In February, it was he and Gordon & Doner partner Gary Paige who won one of their largest jury verdicts yet: $41.8 million in damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., awarded to the estate of a longtime cigarette smoker.
Less than two years earlier, Alvarez and colleagues Phillip Holden, Michael Alvarez and Nick Reyes had won a $10 million verdict for a smoker, and made history in the process. Thanks to their work, the jury reached a landmark decision, returning a no-fault finding for the plaintiff.
“It’s the first time in any Engle case, and I think it’s the first time in U.S. history, that they found the smoker bears no responsibility,” Alvarez told the Daily Business Review at the time.
From his very first tobacco litigation case, Alvarez has become closely associated with landmark — and high-dollar value — rulings against tobacco companies.
‘Tobacco Is Very, Very Different’
Alvarez, along with attorneys Paige and Adam Trop, tried the very first Engle progeny case, Hess v. Phillip Morris, about a decade ago. Engle progeny cases — the individual lawsuits levied against tobacco companies following the Florida Supreme Court’s decertification of Howard Engle’s class action against the Ligget Group in 2009 — have since become a staple of Alvarez’s practice.
According to Alvarez, this is due in part to the subtle and unique distinction he perceives between tobacco companies and other parties he’s opposed in court.
“[If the defense is] a driver who runs a red light, … maybe they were careless and they hurt somebody,” Alvarez said. “But they didn’t mean to hurt somebody, right? There was no intent to do it. They were just careless, could have used better judgment and maybe avoided what happened to my client.”
But In Alvarez’s own words, “Tobacco is very, very different.”
“Tobacco, in 1953, performed a conspiracy to conceal the harms of smoking and its addictive nature — purposely — with the intent of selling a product they knew was killing its customers,” Alvarez claimed. “If you used as directed, 50 percent of its customers were going to die. And since 1964, there have been 20 million Americans who have been killed from a smoking-related disease. And to me it’s the biggest public-health crisis in U.S. history. No industry has killed more people purposely than tobacco.”
Like his work as a police officer, Alvarez said he specializes in tobacco litigation because, fundamentally, he believes it’s important. And he has tried to imbue the commitment he brings to the courtrooms — and all of his endeavors — into each and every attorney who joins the Alvarez Law Firm.
“I make sure that they understand the importance of having a relationship with your client and never forgetting who you work for,” he said. “Lawyers sometimes forget who they work for. … You are trying to improve the quality of their life, trying to get them justice, and trying to get them closure for something bad that happened to them.”
That notion of delivering the highest level of service helps the team and clients maintain focus through extended, complex legal battles.
“Sometimes you don’t win, but you give them closure, and they went through the process,” Alvarez said. “And sometimes the process is just as important as the result.”
When Alvarez was a small child, he and his parents immigrated to the United States from Havana, Cuba. At the age of 19, he enrolled in the police academy. He then rose through the ranks to become a detective in the Miami-Dade Police Department, where he would become well-known for investigating corrupt officers in the “Miami River Cops” case.
After a decade spent chasing criminals with the police force, Alvarez enrolled at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, where he graduated cum laude with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice.
Later, he pursued a juris doctorate. Now, more than 25 years since graduating from the University of Miami Law School, Alvarez’s specialized tobacco litigation practice is pursing corporations that allegedly knowingly harm their customers.
Alvarez’s career trajectory might seem odd at an initial glance — from helping to prosecute criminals to working as a trial lawyer, before finding a lucrative niche taking on Big Tobacco — but several constants undergird his disparate roles. Curious and disciplined, Alvarez is above all else devoted to pursuing justice.
“When you’re young you play cops and robbers. I always wanted to play the cops,” he said. “It’s funny — none of my family were law enforcement, none of my family were lawyers. But my dad — he’s a very honorable and ethical guy. I never saw him lie or cheat. … I grew up in a household where your integrity meant something and your word meant something else. It was instilled in me that you should always do the right thing, and so I always thought that was important.”
Born: 1959, Havana, Cuba
Education: University of Miami, J.D., 1992; St. Thomas University, B.S., cum laude, 1989
Experience: Partner, The Alvarez Law Firm, Coral Gables, 2002 to present; Partner, Hillencamp & Alvarez, Miami, 1995-2002; Associate, Leesfield & Blackburn, Miami, 1992-1995; Detective, Miami-Dade Police Department, 1980-1992