Even though I detest tobacco smoke, I found myself cheering Tuesday when the tobacco industry won a big one in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
What the court said, in simple terms, is that the heirs of a man who smoked heavily for 23 years and died of cancer cannot get $3 million from Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. on grounds that the company did not give the deceased man adequate warning about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.
My regret is that the court backed the tobacco industry on a legalism rather than taking the common-sense approach to justice by saying, ''Anyone who has smoked as many as three or four packs of cigarettes a day for 23 years, and did not know he was imperiling his life, had to be hiding under a tobacco plant.'' Who smokes, abuses drugs, runs up his cholesterol level or his weight, without doctors giving ample warning at some time over two decades?
What the appeals court said to the heirs of Joseph C. Palmer of Newton, Mass., who died of cancer seven years ago, is that the federally mandated warnings on cigarette packages are ample and that no matter what state officials want, the federal warnings are overriding and protect tobacco companies from product liability litigation of the sort before the court.
What I want the judges to say is that there are areas of life in which individuals must accept responsibility for their own behavior. Manufacturers ought to pay dearly if they make a toy that blows up in a child's face, an automobile that races out of control when put in reverse or a nightgown that erupts in flames while the wearer is merely standing in front of a fireplace.
But there must be common-sense limits to this business of making someone else liable for any individual's recklessness -- or stupidity. The courts ought to make this clear, and in doing so rein in the vast army of lawyers who see ''product liability'' in just about every personal tragedy.
I have written before that it is ludicrous to think the host of a cocktail party of, say, 100 people can be held liable for an automobile accident involving one guest who may have had a drink too many at the party, or a few too many before arriving at the party. Owners of bars and restaurants cannot reasonably be expected to know when the blood-alcohol level of a guest has passed the point where the state says that person is driving under the influence of beer, booze or wine.
I have this weakness for M&Ms candy. There's nothing on the wrapper that says that if I let them melt in my mouth until my sweet tooth is satiated, my other teeth may fall out. But out there somewhere is a lawyer who would haul any decayed molars into court and say that the manufacturer of those little chocolate gems owes me a few million bucks.
There must be a thousand lawyers salivating at the prospect of suing condom manufacturers on the grounds that their client got AIDS practicing unsafe sex only because the condom was defective.
In this society of speedy and all-encompassing communications, everyone of reasonable intelligence knows that smoking cigarettes, abusing drugs, drinking excessive amounts of booze and perhaps even eating 14 eggs and seven steaks a week can be hazardous to health. I find it revoltingly unjust that anyone who flouts the warnings should be able to go into court and ask for a fortune from whichever manufacturer made the product that the victim used in outlandish excess.