Tobacco industry boosted by American court victory

The beleaguered tobacco industry received an important boost last night after a jury in Florida found that RJ Reynolds was not liable for the death from cancer of a woman who had been a lifelong smoker.

The family of the smoker, Jean Connor, had sued RJ Reynolds, alleging that it made a dangerous and defective product and that it had been negligent in giving sufficient warnings about the health risks of smoking.

The trial, which lasted five weeks, was being keenly watched by the industry and by Wall Street. There were fears that a verdict against RJ Reynolds would prompt another slide in the shares of tobacco companies, which are already contending with a constellation of legal and political challenges.

Instead, the decision by the jury will strengthen the industry's hand at a crucial time. Negotiations between the two leading cigarette makers, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris, on a possible global settlement to end the anti-tobacco lawsuits resumed behind closed doors in Dallas yesterday.

Ms Connor died in October 1995. The jury had a chance to hear her directly, however, in a videotape made by her just before the death. The tape was partially played in the courtroom.

Ms Connor's estate had be seeking damages to compensate for her death and was also asking the jury to impose punitive damages on RJ Reynolds. The case was the first time in a Florida tobacco liability case that punitive damages had been requested.

But the tobacco companies still face multiple threats. A class action suit in Florida against the industry is due to go court in July.

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