Yasiel Puig suit on track for '15 trial

MIAMI -- A lawsuit alleging that Yasiel Puig falsely denounced a man to Cuban authorities in 2010 for attempting to smuggle him out of the country -- which resulted in that man's alleged torture there -- has survived a motion to dismiss. A trial date has been set for November 2015, though serious hurdles for the plaintiff remain.

The plaintiff, Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot, originally filed suit against Puig in July 2013 under a little-known federal statue called the Torture Victim Protection Act, or TVPA. Signed into law in 1992, it allows torture victims who are not U.S. citizens to sue their alleged perpetrators in U.S. courts. Corbacho is seeking $12 million in damages.

Speaking from the bench during a hearing in Miami federal court Tuesday, Judge Kathleen Williams essentially ruled that evidence provided in January by Corbacho's attorneys satisfied the court. The allegations, Williams ruled, rose above the speculative level. But, she added, for the case ultimately to succeed, Corbacho's attorneys must show not only that his experience in Cuban prisons amounted to torture as defined by previous cases litigated under the TVPA, but also that Puig purposefully joined with the Cuban government to have Corbacho tortured.

"There will be a high bar going forward," Williams said.

Both sides claimed victory in the wake of the hearing.

"All they did was show a cause of action," said Puig's attorney, Sean Santini, outside the courthouse in front of three TV cameras from local Miami Spanish-language channels. "Now we're looking forward to proving our case."

"No matter how he phrases it, he lost the motion," said Kenia Bravo, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, also outside the courthouse. "If you look at the TVPA, not many other cases get past this stage."

Before it can actually reach trial, the case will still likely need to survive a motion for summary judgment, which Puig's attorney will almost assuredly file. Then there's the logistical challenge of taking Corbacho's deposition. He will either need to travel to Miami, a difficult prospect for someone still serving out a sentence in Cuba, or attorneys will need to travel to Cuba to depose him there. If no deposition is made, or if Corbacho himself cannot get out of Cuba before the trial date, the case could be dismissed for failure to prosecute.

A similar case against the Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman, also being litigated on behalf of two plaintiffs by Bravo and her boss Avelino Gonzalez, survived summary judgment earlier this year and is scheduled for trial in November. One of the plaintiffs in that case, Danilo Curbelo Garcia, was, like Corbacho, on probation in Cuba, serving out the rest of a sentence he received because of testimony made against him by Chapman. But Gonzalez, through a series of complicated international maneuverings, was recently able to arrange for him to leave the country. Curbelo arrived in Miami in late May.

For the hearing in the federal courthouse in downtown Miami on Tuesday, neither plaintiff nor defendant was present. Corbacho, living under a form of house arrest in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana, has three years remaining in his seven-year sentence. Such are the conditions of his provisional release that, at any moment, the Cuban authorities could take him back to jail, according to Bravo. Puig, for his part, was in Kansas City during the hearing, preparing for his start at designated hitter in the Dodgers night game against the Royals.

Though entirely expected, Corbacho and Puig's absences could almost be felt in the courtroom. Their legal battle had already brought to light explosive details about what Puig, and Cuban baseball players in general, must go through to flee their isolated island nation on their way to the majors.

A series of improbable events has served to entangle the lives of these two native Cubans. According to Corbacho, when Puig was still an 18-year-old up-and-comer in Cuba, in 2010, the ballplayer had gone to the country's notorious secret police and accused Corbacho of attempting to smuggle him off the island.

This -- the stealing of Cuba's baseball talent -- was and is a major crime under the Castro regime, essentially an act of political subversion. In Cuba, players of Puig's caliber are constantly harangued by practitioners of human trafficking. And as the Castro regime grows ever more desperate in its efforts to staunch the talent drain, government officials are continually pressuring players to become informants, to deliver details on smugglers and their representatives and to help put them in jail.

Corbacho asserts that he had no connection to these underground enterprises, and that he ended up spending four years being tortured by guards and other government officials in Cuban prisons for a crime he did not commit. Two years later, in spring 2012, Puig would in fact escape Cuba in the hands of smugglers and, less than two months after that, sign with the Dodgers for $42 million. Some have characterized Corbacho's suit as nothing more than an attempted shakedown. Still, the suit carries a certain amount of potential reputational risk for the superstar. Corbacho is accusing Puig not only of being a snitch -- chivato in Cuban slang -- but of snitching on someone he knew to be innocent.

The case has evolved since the beginning of the year. In December, the judge basically ruled that she could throw out the suit, as currently filed, for lack of evidence. But she allowed the plaintiff's attorneys more time to produce that evidence. And so, in January, Gonzalez and Bravo filed an amended complaint that included an affidavit recording the testimony of Yunior Despaigne, a former boxer and childhood friend of Puig's who had effectively helped recruit the baseball player to defect while both still lived in Cuba. Despaigne had also joined Puig on his escape and is now living in Miami.

According to the boxer's affidavit, Puig on a number of occasions had confided to Despaigne that he met with the national director of Cuban baseball, Higinio Velez, and agreed to become an informant for the Cuban authorities "to expose persons who were stealing Cuban athletes through trafficking." Puig had been kicked off the national team as punishment for a 2009 defection attempt, but, Velez told him, he could nonetheless "prove his loyalty and clean his name if he worked with the state." According to the logic of Corbacho's lawsuit, Puig felt that by providing information on would-be smuggling operations, he could get the authorities off his back, and thus more freely plan his actual defection. And so, according to this narrative, Corbacho had played an essential role in -- had in fact been sacrificed for -- Puig's eventual obtainment of his Dodgers contract.

Puig does not deny that he testified against Corbacho in the Cuban trial. But according to Santini, neither Despaigne's testimony nor other evidence in the plaintiff's court filings show that Puig had entered into a conspiracy with the Cuban government to put Corbacho away and have him tortured. As Santini wrote in his motion to dismiss, "The Court will note that plaintiff's mealy-mouthed allegation does not state that the subject of torture was actually discussed during this alleged meeting" between Puig and the Cuban national baseball director, Velez.

Gonzalez and Bravo have countered that they have sufficiently demonstrated that Puig understood that someone convicted of enticing Cuban baseball players to defect would face dire circumstances in prison. The case's survival in the next phases -- and, if it gets there, at trial -- will hinge on them doing just that.