The Trial: Bryant v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The Attorney: Stephen Kaczynski
While it's important for a plaintiff's attorney in a wrongful death trial to speak to a jury's sympathies, it's absolutely critical for defense attorneys to overcome those same natural sympathies toward the plaintiffs in order to prevail. Typically, that requires turning the jurors' attention away from the heart-rending circumstances that surround the death at the heart of the case and force them to examine the evidence as objectively as possible. Stephen Kaczynski, representing R.J. Reynolds in Doris Bryant's Engle progeny suit against the tobacco manufacturer, used a powerful opening statement to center jurors' focus on the plaintiff's potential Achilles heel, the lack of critical medical evidence.
Hayward Bryant, the deceased smoker at the heart of Bryant v. R.J. Reynolds, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for decades before dying of lung cancer in 1996. However, most of the records related to Bryant’s cancer diagnosis and treatment had been destroyed as part of a medical center’s routine administrative cleanup. With his opening statement, Kaczynski used the dearth of medical evidence to overcome the emotional circumstances that naturally surround a terminal illness and break the jurors' natural association between smoking and lung cancer. Kaczynski characterizes the case as being built on “guesswork” and “leaps of faith,” then highlights, item-by-item, the key medical information jurors would not see from the plaintiff.
Kaczynski also shows that an attorney can deliver a compelling opening statement from behind a lectern. His powerful delivery is highlighted with evocative language—describing the burden of proof as "rocks" on the scales of justice, for example—aimed to connect with jurors while emphasizing their duty to objectively weigh the evidence at hand. It's an opening statement that sets the stage for the jury's verdict in favor of R.J. Reynolds.