Major Tobacco Trial Comes To A Close In Bethel

Apr 25, 2018

The State of Alaska courthouse in Bethel, Alaska.
Credit Dean Swope/KYUK

A major trial involving the tobacco industry went into closing arguments in Bethel on Tuesday.

Marshall resident Dolores Hunter lost her husband to lung cancer over a decade ago, and she has been suing Phillip Morris for damages ever since. She alleges that her husband, Benjamin Francis, was deceived about the health effects of Marlboro Lights cigarettes, and that the corporation deliberately misled smokers like him for years.

The trial could have national implications, but for the moment is preoccupied with a single man’s life. Toward the end of their closing arguments, the attorneys started to argue over how much Benjamin Francis’ life was really worth.

Don Burmeister, one of Hunter’s attorneys, says that Francis’ family lost well over a million dollars when he died. His family never benefited from the money he would have earned if he had lived, or his PFD payments. Then there’s the salmon Francis wasn’t alive to catch, and the daily chores he wasn’t there to do.

Phillip Morris says that a million dollars is too high. That number doesn’t account for fishing closures and other factors, argued attorney Stan Davis. Then there’s the $250,000 that Hunter’s attorneys want the jury to award to one of Francis’ sons. It’s for mental distress, but it’s hard to measure how distressed the son really was after his father’s death, claimed Davis. He says that Francis and his older son didn’t spend much time together.

In Dolores Hunter vs. Phillip Morris USA, the jury needs to decide whether Phillip Morris deceived Francis with manipulative advertising campaigns and, if it did, how much the corporation should pay for the damages it was responsible for. Over the past two weeks, attorneys on both sides have delved deep into Francis’ history. The jury knows about his dog mushing, his love of guitar, and what he brought with him when he moved in with his wife. They’ve seen family photos of him and watched testimony from his family and friends.

Much of the trial revolves around decisions Francis made in his life. Hunter’s attorney Don Burmeister argues that Francis was addicted to cigarettes. He started smoking at age 10, at a time when tobacco companies hid their products’ health risks and marketed them to children. As an adult he preferred Marlboro Lights, which Phillip Morris falsely advertised as a healthier alternative to other cigarettes.

Phillip Morris attorney Stan Davis doesn’t dispute that the corporation ran misleading advertisements, but he says that Francis didn’t see them as a child, and as an adult he didn’t fall for them. Francis was strong-willed, smart, and capable of making his own choices, Davis said. He chose to smoke despite the risks.

This is the third time that Dolores Hunter vs. Phillip Morris USA has been tried in the past seven years. The first trial was appealed and the second ended in a hung jury. Attorneys finished their closing arguments on Wednesday morning and the jury’s verdict is expected later this week.