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$349 million OK'd to settle smoke suit by flight attendants

A judge approved a $349 million settlement of a landmark secondhand-smoke suit Friday, rubber stamping a plan for a medical foundation and opening the door to individual lawsuits by flight attendants.

"This is a turning point," said Stanley Rosenblatt, attorney for the nonsmoking attendants, who settled their class-action suit against the tobacco industry four months into trial last October.The nation's four biggest cigarette makers must pay the first $100 million installment in April, and researchers at Harvard and elsewhere already have submitted unsolicited proposals for smoking-related studies.

The first individual lawsuit should be filed next week on behalf of the lead plaintiff, American Airlines attendant Norma Broin, whose lung cancer is in remission, Rosenblatt said. Attendants get no money out of the settlement.

Barring an appeal of Circuit Judge Robert Kaye's settlement order, attendants with illnesses blamed on the air they breathed on smoky airliners can sue any time in the next year for compensatory damages.

Smoking on domestic flights was banned in 1990, four years after the surgeon general warned that cigarette smoke caused lung cancer in nonsmokers.

The final settlement comes as the tobacco industry battles the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross Blue Shield in court and awaits congressional review of a proposed $368 billion national settlement of tobacco litigation. Separate settlements have been reached with Florida, Texas and Mississippi.

David Adelman, tobacco analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, considers the latest move in Miami "a non-issue."

"The industry settled that litigation to enhance the likelihood of there being a national agreement," he said. "If there's a national agreement, they won't face cases like this in the future."

The Clinton administration told Congress for the first time Thursday that it could support protecting cigarette makers from most lawsuits if necessary to enact the national settlement.