On a Friday morning in April, 1976, James H. Davis stepped into an elevator at a D.C. Superior Court building on his way to his fourth floor office. He was smoking a cigarette.

Roy Licari, who says burning cigarettes are "offensive to me and my breathing," and Donald C. Brown, who claims he is allergic to tobacco smoke, also were on the elevator on their way to work.

Another episode in the battle over smoking in public - be it in airplanes, meeting rooms, theaters or elevators - had begun.

As a result of a heated argument that followed the meeting in the elevator, Davis filed an $800,000 suit in D.C. Superior Court for injuries he says he suffered when the nonsmokers allegedly forced him to remain on the elevator until a building guard was sumoned and a formal complaint was filed against him.

Licari and Brown countered with a $20,000 lawsuit, claiming among other things that Davis assaulted them with the smoke from his cigarette and invaded their privacy by "causing harmful substances to enter their skin, eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and other parts of their bodies."

Smoking on public elevators has been prohibited by law in the District of Columbia since 1975.

Davis filed his lawsuit in Superior Court in July, 1976. Then it was sent over to U.S. District Court, where a judge said there was nothing in Davis' complaint "which could conceivably support a recovery" in excess of $10,000, the minimum amount required for litigation in the federal courts.

So the case was sent back to Superior Court. The court file is now thick and the legal maneuvering between the parties continues, but there appears to be no settlement in slight.

Davis claims that as a result of the nonsmoker's actions - which he says included assault false imprisonment, false arrest and malicious prosecution - he has suffered physical and emotional injuries, mental anguish, loss of income now and in the future, and a loss of earning capacity.

Davis, 51, is the manager of Project Crossroads, a court-sponsored program or pretrial counseling for first offenders.

Licari and Brown claim they are owed damages because they were exposed to the harmful elements of cigarette smoke - 46 of which they list in their suit - and allege that Davis filed his suit maliciously, causing them to suffer "expense and inconvenience."

Davis claims no sign was posted in the elevator where the dispute occurred, at 613 G. St. NW.

The non-smokers apparently agree. They have named two city elevator inspectors as parties to their claim for damages because, they say, the officials failed to inspect and post "no smoking" signs in the elevator.

"Some of my best friends are smokers," Lacari, 63, said in an interview.

What he objects to, he said, "is being an involuntary breather of somebody else's smoke in close quarters."

Both Licari and Brown, 48, are attorneys for the D.C. Department of General Services.

Licari claims that on the morning in question he and Brown reminded Davis that smoking is prohibited on elevators, but he said, Davis continued to smoke.

Davis declined to discuss the details of the conversation in the elevator. But he described the exchange as "heated" and said the nonsmokers were "very rude."Davis said he eventually put his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe after he had "finished smoking to my satisfaction."

In his lawsuit, Davis described the two nonsmokers as having a "menacing attitude." He claimed in the suit that they would not let him leave the elevator, thereby "indicating to him their intentions of restraining him" and causing him to be in "fear of imminent peril."

In their court papers, Licari and Brown claim they acted in self-defense. They say they had a legal right to detain Davis for a reasonable period of time since he had committed an assualt - smoking - in their pressence.

The nonsmokers filed a formal complaint against Davis with the D.C. Corporation Counsel. After an informal hearing, according to court records, the case was dismissed, apparently because there was no "no smoking" sign in the evelator.

Yesterday, there were two "no smoking" signs in the elevator and two cigarette butts on its floor.