Major Case Against Tobacco Company Goes To Trial In Bethel (Again)

Apr 10, 2018

The Nora Guinn Justice Center in Bethel, Alaska.
Credit Dean Swope/KYUK

Dolores Hunter vs. Phillip Morris USA has already gone to trial twice in Bethel, but the third time might be the charm. Jury selection began at Bethel’s courthouse Monday in what could be a major case against the tobacco company.

Marshall resident Dolores Hunter is suing Phillip Morris for damages following the untimely death of her common-law husband, Benjamin Francis, who started smoking as a young child. He died of lung cancer in 2004 at the age of 52 after trying and failing to quit many times.

Dolores Hunter’s attorneys argue that Phillip Morris misled smokers like her husband for years and intentionally confused them with ad campaigns. Francis was particularly fond of Marlboro Lights, which Phillip Morris marketed as a healthier alternative to other cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has since determined that those advertisements were misleading. For their part, Phillip Morris’ attorneys argue that the company did not deceive Francis at all.

Hunter’s case against Phillip Morris has been winding its way through the court system for years. It was first tried in 2011, and the jury ruled in favor of Phillip Morris. Hunter's attorneys appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which agreed that the verdict went against the weight of evidence. The case was retried and ended with a hung jury in November 2016. Now, a third trial is underway.

Hunter’s case could impact Phillip Morris regardless of its outcome. A 2014 Surgeon General’s report suggests that litigation against tobacco companies can be a tool to advance tobacco regulations and reduce the harm of cigarettes.

On Monday, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents called in for jury duty crowded the hallways of Bethel’s small courthouse, some sitting cross-legged on the floor. The courtroom itself was packed with an unusual number of lawyers, some of whom had flown in from across the country. Attorneys expect the trial to last three to four weeks.