When Coral Gables trial attorney Michael Haggard discovered the back pain he’d been experiencing in his mid-30s was actually an incurable kidney disease, he attacked the problem the only way he knew how: like one of his personal injury cases.

Now in need of a kidney transplant, Haggard — who’s been the driving force behind many seven and eight-figure verdicts in Florida and beyond — got to work researching his condition and creating a chart of everyone he’d talked to about donating.

Haggard had polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, meaning cysts were causing his kidney function decline. And the diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise to the attorney, who’d already lost family members to it. Haggard’s grandmother died before he was born, inspiring his uncle to became a nephrologist, but he died after his own kidney transplant was unsuccessful.

If Haggard didn’t find a new kidney, he’d need to go on dialysis — not a desirable outcome. After debating whether to tell his peers, he decided going public could help publicize an issue fraught with misconceptions.

“One thing as a lawyer you struggle with sometimes is, when you get involved with something that affects your health, do you tell everybody? Because that can hurt business. You’ve got to worry about, does somebody think, ‘Oh my God, Mike’s not going to be around. I’m not going to send him cases anymore,’ ” Haggard said. ”All the lawyers were like, ‘Oh my God, Mike’s going to die!’ They kind of overreacted and we raised $100,000 in like a week.”

Haggard continued trying cases, three of which resulted in record-breaking $100 million verdicts. But by his mid-40s, when Haggard’s kidney function fell below 20%, things “ got a little scary,” prompting him to delegate and hire lawyers so he could spend more time with family.

“You sit there and you can have all the confidence in the world, but when this has got to go right, you’re thinking that they’re putting another organ in you that’s going to run your whole filtration system, it’s a little strange,” Haggard said. “But the only way I knew how to deal with it is to attack it like I attack cases or anything in life. You’ve got to go full speed and trust people.”

Chief among those people was Haggard’s brother-in-law Capt. Allen Buckhalt, who offered to donate his kidney as he had a feeling he’d be a match.

And he was right. But Buckhalt is also a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, so it took about nine months to get the necessary approval and meet Tampa General Hospital’s criteria.

‘A no-brainer’

In October 2016, Buckhalt donated a kidney to Haggard. The procedure went well, and Buckhalt was back at work within three weeks and deployed to a combat zone within six months.

Michael Haggard of the Haggard Law Firm (left) before his brother in law Allen Buckhalt (right) donated a kidney to him at Tampa General Hospital in 2016. Courtesy photo
Michael Haggard of the Haggard Law Firm (left) before his brother-in-law Allen Buckhalt (right) donated a kidney to him at Tampa General Hospital in 2016. Courtesy photo.

It was a family decision, the way Buckhalt tells it.

“I think the simplest answer that we could give for it is just love. … If you could help save somebody’s life and give them a second chance, that’s a no-brainer. We wanted him to get this dark cloud of kidney disease behind him and just have him live the life that he wanted to live with his family and his profession,” Buckhalt said. “That’s the best part of all of this, is that he’s gotten his second wind, I think.”

Buckhalt said the transplant has given Haggard a new perspective on life and inspired him to raise awareness of kidney disease and donation.

‘Can I have your kidney?’

About 13 friends also offered to donate their kidney to Haggard, including 10 trial attorneys.

But his experience revealed a major problem with the way people think about organ transplants, as many assume you need a deceased donor or some mythical “perfect match,” when all it really takes is matching blood types. As a result, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney in the U.S.

“I look at my kids and they have a chance of getting this, and that weighs on me tremendously,” Haggard said. ”How do we get more people to ask? How do you ask someone to give you the gift of life?’ It’s not an easy request: ‘Hey, can I have your kidney? Thanks! Can you pass the butter please?’ ”

Haggard and his wife, Rebekka, have since funded a position at Tampa General Hospital that exists solely to help patients find living donors, via social media campaigns and outreach to family and friends. It’s increased the hospital’s living donations by more than 100%, according to Haggard.

The transplant had a similar effect on Buckhalt, who said it demonstrated the impact one person can make.

“ There’s just a lack of awareness out there and I think there’s fear involved as well, of what kidney donation can bring, and I’m proof that you can live a completely normal life following kidney donation,” Buckhalt said. “To be honest, I think I feel better post-kidney donation than I did before.”

‘How do we change society?’

Haggard’s transplant has also shaped how he practices law, pushing him to look beyond individual cases and ask, “How do we change society from that case?” It’s an approach that’s made his firm a go-to place for negligent security and wrongful death lawsuits.

In 2003, Haggard landed what was Florida’s largest single personal injury jury verdict when he represented the family of toddler Loren Hinton, left brain-damaged after almost drowning in her apartment complex pool. Jurors hit the owners with a $100 million verdict, finding they should have repaired a broken gate and put fencing around the pool.

Next came a call from the family of a 14-year-old boy who suffered catastrophic brain injury when he was trapped underwater by the suction of an unsafe pool pump. That resulted in a $104 million verdict.

Haggard then represented the family of former Secretary of State James Baker, whose 7-year-old granddaughter drowned in a backyard spa pool, trapped by the same suction pump.

From that, the federal Virginia Graema Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act was born. And it’s one of the most effective safety acts in the country, according to Haggard, as only one suction entrapment has happened since its 2007 enactment.

But Haggard’s biggest heartbreak? He’s still handling multiple pool gate cases.

Now managing partner at The Haggard Law Firm, Haggard began his career at the public defender’s office, where he’d wander around asking, ”Who’s got a trial that I can jump in on?”

Eventually, he found a niche, as local police vice squads were cracking down on illegal prostitution. The problem, Haggard discovered, was that many officers were “having fun” before arresting people.

So, after finding a 1918 case that said crimes against moral turpitude couldn’t go to bench trials, Haggard forced prosecutors before juries, who watched as officers admitted what they did on the stand.

“Every jury was like, ‘Oh, give me a break’. So we won a couple of those and they stopped doing it,” Haggard said.

Haggard learned how to take charge of a courtroom from his father, prominent South Florida trial lawyer Andy Haggard, who taught him, “All the hard work was to make someone else’s life better.”

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