LEXINGTON, MISS., JAN. 29 -- A mistrial was declared today in a cigarette-liability lawsuit against American Tobacco Co. after the jury said it could not reach a verdict in the case.

Holmes County Circuit Judge Gray Evans declared the mistrial less than an hour after telling reporters that deliberations would continue this afternoon and resume Saturday, if necessary. The jurors had had insufficient time to cope with "a complicated case, a long case," in which there were 170 exhibits, he said then.

By that time the jurors -- eight women and four men -- had deliberated for about 11 hours over two days.

In court later, Evans said he was declaring the mistrial "very, very reluctantly, for reasons I do not feel would be advantageous to anyone" to reveal.

He requested that the jurors not discuss the case, adding that they would have been free to do so had they reached a verdict.

The judge's announcement shortly before 5 p.m. stunned many people in the courtroom, which has been packed since the trial began Jan. 4. Some spectators whose families have resided in Holmes County for generations had expected a verdict shortly after the case went to the jury yesterday, suggesting that the only dispute would be over the amount of money to award the family of Nathan H. Horton, a longtime smoker who died of emphysema and lung cancer a year go. The plaintiffs had asked for $2 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages.

The outcome of the trial was expected to have a significant impact on similar lawsuits in the future. A clear-cut verdict for the plaintiffs could have triggered many new product-liability lawsuits, with far-reaching implications for the tobacco industry. Conversely, a verdict for the defense was considered likely to chill further efforts to defeat the tobacco companies through litigation. The companies have never paid a cent to a smoker who blamed cigarettes for his injuries.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Don Barrett said he "absolutely" will file for a new trial.

American Tobacco (ATC) attorney Jim Upshaw told reporters, "I'm real happy." He emphasized that the company would have lost if only nine jurors had found Horton 99 percent responsible for the lung cancer and emphysema that killed him a year ago at age 50, while finding ATC 1 percent at fault.

Defense lawyer Ed Blackmon Jr. said his side had come "as close to a victory as you can have without winning."

Law professor Donald W. Garner of Southern Illinois University, a leading academic expert on tobacco litigation, disagreed, saying the mistrial was "certainly not a victory for the defendants." He added, "This was the first case in which a {smoker} plaintiff has not lost before a jury."

Garner also said that the plaintiffs had been hurt by Evans' refusal to allow any mention to the jury of a possible connection between cigarette advertising and Horton's smoking.

Blackmon hailed the outcome as supportive of the key defense argument that smoking is a matter of free choice. "The right to live your life the way you want to is still present in this community," he told reporters on the courthouse lawn.

He denounced references to the jury as being "sympathetic" to Horton, which, he said, was a code for saying the jurors would decide the case on the basis of race. Eleven of the jurors are black, as was Horton.

"We're not black racists in this community," Blackmon said. This statement drew loud cheers and shouts from a crowd of black spectators.

A verdict would have required an agreement by nine jurors. Before noon, the jury told the judge that they were deadlocked 7 to 5, but gave no indication whether the majority was for the plaintiff or the defendant.

The judge said at that time that nine of the jurors had indicated that nothing would budge them from their positions, while three told him they felt further deliberations would result in a verdict.