Opening statements begin in Bethel tobacco trial

Nora Guinn Justice Center in Bethel, Alaska. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

On Wednesday, Dolores Hunter vs. Phillip Morris USA went to trial for the third time in seven years. The trial could have wide-reaching implications for the tobacco company. In their opening statements, the attorneys chose to focus on the legacy of a single Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta man whose early death has resulted in 14 years of litigation.

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Benjamin Francis was a musician and dog musher who spent his life in the Lower Yukon’s villages. A trained firefighter and forestry technician, he helped his community where he could. In St. Mary’s, he briefly served as acting chief of police and fire chief. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed, he helped translate the bill into Yup’ik for his neighbors.

Francis was also a smoker. His friends think he started when he was about 10 years old, and he tried and failed to quit. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he told his common-law wife, Dolores Hunter, that he was sorry. Francis died of cancer in 2004 at 52 years old.

Hunter and her two sons have been suing Phillip Morris for damages for years. In his opening statement, Hunter’s attorney, Don Bauermeister, claimed that the tobacco company deliberately misled smokers like Francis for decades.

“The fraud was real,” Bauermeister told the jury.

Francis started smoking as a child, Bauermeister argued, because companies like Phillip Morris marketed their products to children. Adults, meanwhile, were unaware of exactly how dangerous cigarettes could be.

“It was excused,” Bauermeister said. “His parents didn’t know, his teachers didn’t know. They were fooled, [so] he was fooled.”

Francis also favored Marlboro Lights, Bauermeister said, a brand Phillip Morris had misleadingly marketed as a healthier brand of cigarette.

In his own opening statement, Phillip Morris attorney Stan Davis didn’t dispute that smoking may have contributed to Francis’ death or that Phillip Morris’ past marketing was misleading. But he claimed that Francis rarely saw Phillip Morris ad campaigns, and when he did, they didn’t fool him. Doctors repeatedly told Francis to quit, Davis said. He knew cigarettes were bad for him.

“This is a fraud case,” Davis reminded the jury, and stressed that the jury’s job was to determine whether Francis was “tricked or fooled.”

Francis knew the risks, said Davis. He chose to smoke anyway.

The attorneys’ opening statements each lasted about an hour Wednesday morning. They expect the rest of the trial to last three to four weeks.