California Gov. George Deukmejian was expected to sign last night legislation protecting the tobacco industry from product liability lawsuits stemming from smoking-related injuries.

The California legislation resulted from a surprise alliance of trial lawyers and their traditional antagonists in court, manufacturers and insurers. As part of the agreement, the legislation raises the fees attorneys may charge in medical malpractice suits.

The new Civil Liability Act states that a manufacturer won't be liable if a "common consumer product" is "inherently unsafe," and if the "ordinary consumer" knows it's unsafe in using it "with the ordinary knowledge common to the community."

The legislation lists as examples of common consumer products sugar, alcohol, castor oil, butter and tobacco. The first four are rarely subjects of product liability lawsuits, and lawyers familiar with the legislation said its intent was to protect the tobacco industry. The legislation will discourage lawsuits, they said, because the manufacturers would simply have to prove that their products are unsafe.

"They have made it almost if not completely impossible to bring a lawsuit against a tobacco manufacturer," said Harry M. Snyder, an attorney who is regional director of Consumers Union in San Francisco.

Snyder called the bill a "betrayal ... that took away consumers rights," and other critics questioned whether the measure -- which would apply to 27 cases currently in the courts -- could survive legal challenges.

Tobacco companies have faced numerous lawsuits, but have never paid a cent to an injured smoker. Recent appellate court rulings have held that warnings mandated on tobacco products protect manufacturers from claims that smokers weren't told the habit is dangerous.

Nevertheless, the industry is concerned about the continuing flow of lawsuits, and lawyers say a torrent of litigation would follow a verdict in favor of a smoker.

With national product-liability legislation apparently stalled in Congress, the California bill could become a model for other states.

The bill sailed through the state legislature on Sept. 11 within hours after the agreement signed by the California Trial Lawyers Association, whose members represent plaintiffs; the Association of California Insurance Companies, the Association for California Tort Reform, the California Medical Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Association.

"The parties recognize that a continued adversarial interest is not in the best interests of the people of California nor in their own best interests," the organization said in the agreement.

During a five-year "armistice," it said, the organizations promised not to sponsor voter initiatives or try to change laws on damages or fees.

The legislation raised allowable contingency fees in medical malpractice case starting with awards over $100,000. Under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975, a lawyer can keep only $25,000 of the second $100,000, and only 10 percent of anything over $200,000.

Under the new bill, lawyers can collect 25 percent of the portion of the award between $100,000 and $600,000, and 15 percent of the excess over $600,000.

Jay Michael, legislative representative of the California Medical Association, said the five-year agreement on the fee structure for the lawyers will hold down the costs of malpractice insurance and of health-care costs. This made the measure appealing to the insurance industry and doctors.

But Michael -- whose father, a long-time smoker, died of lung cancer -- said "we do not favor the section as it applies to tobacco." He stressed the provision's application to other products.

For manufacturers, the bill's attraction included the provision making it applicable to the 27 pending cases. Nearly all are called "synergistic" cases because the plaintiffs are men whose risks of lung diseases had been multiplied by workplace exposures to asbestos.

But critics of the Civil Liability Act, including Prof. Richard Daynard, cochairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project in Boston, say the bill may be vulnerable to court challenges, in part because of the retroactive provision.

In specifying tobacco and the four other products, the product-liability provision refers to a comment in "Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts" -- a reference to the doctrine under which a smoker, say, can sue only for a design defect in or contamination of cigarettes.

Daynard held out the possibility that the statute "may not apply to cigarettes" and that this may be a "fatal defect." He said "tobacco" is an agricultural product, that cigarettes are manufactured products, and that their smoke contains substances that do not appear naturally in tobacco, including arsenic, silicon and titanium.

Daynard also said that "it certainly looks like a commercial transaction {when} the trial lawyers will get an additional $80,000 out of every $1 million malpractice recovery in return for attempting to sell tobacco plaintiffs down the river."

An official of the trial lawyers' association, declining to be named, heatedly rejected such allegations, partly on the ground that "no cases could be won" by a two-pack-a-day smoker, and that smoker cases are "not for the tort system" and "don't belong in the civil justice system."

In addition, the official said, the organization faced "potentially devastating" initiatives in 1988. He said he is "convinced they {the other side} got nothing they shouldn't have gotten."

Several sources said that Nielsen, Hodgson, Parrinello & Mueller, the law firm representing manufacturers, brought in lawyers from Covington & Burling, whose clients include the Tobacco Institute.

The sources didn't know why the Washington lawyers appeared, or in whose behalf. The Tobacco Institute and one of the Covington & Burling lawyers involved in the matter declined to comment.