JACKSON, MISS., FEB. 19 -- An attorney for American Brands Inc. has acknowledged that company representatives talked with jurors during the trial of a $16.5 million damage suit against the cigarette manufacturer, but he said the plaintiffs are wrong to call it jury tampering.

The family of deceased smoker Nathan Horton, of Durant, Miss., had contended that American Brands should be held liable for his illness and death. Horton, 50, died Jan. 29, 1987, of emphysema and lung cancer after 35 years of smoking two packs a day of Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, which are made by American Brands.

The trial ended Jan. 29 with a hung jury.

Don Barrett, an attorney for the plaintiffs, filed documents Thursday alleging improper jury contact by the American Brands representatives and seeking a default judgment and other sanctions against the defendant.

But Ed Blackmon, one of several local attorneys hired by American Brands, called the allegations of improper jury contact a joke.

Blackmon said the alleged improper contact with jurors was to let jurors know there wouldn't be court that day because the judge was ill.

"When you try to make that into a tampering argument, it's what their case was about: Take what amounts to nothing and turn it into something," he said.

The Horton family's motion, filed in Holmes County Circuit Court, is based on information contained in affidavits given to District Attorney Frank Carlton.

It seeks a judgment on the Hortons' behalf on the basis of American Brand's alleged liability for Horton's lung cancer and death, as well as attorneys' fees, court costs and expenses in preparation of the case.

At issue are allegations that two paid representatives of American Brand contacted three jurors during the trial, said Carlton.

Carlton said he picked up four affidavits Tuesday from Holmes County Circuit Judge Gray Evans, who presided over the month-long trial.

Jurors gave two of the sworn statements, in which they said an individual contacted them one day during the trial about a scheduling change in court, Carlton said. Two other affidavits were made by people who heard an American Brands adviser bragging that he had been paid $2,700. One of those people also said the adviser was talking to a juror.

"You're not supposed to contact jurors," Carlton said. "You're not even supposed to say, 'Good morning.' "

At Carlton's request, authorities have begun a criminal investigation of the charges.