Back when I was a crack claims adjuster for a major insurance company, I was taught the most amazing legal concept. It is called "contributory negligence," and it applies to situations in which neither party is totally wrong nor totally right but, as life often has it, somewhere in between. That concept, John M. Galbraith would have said, about describes his relationship with R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Its cigarettes killed him, but he had to light them.

How that common-sense observation escaped the Santa Barbara, Calif., jury that found cigarettes nonaddictive and therefore not liable for the death of Galbraith is something I, as a former smoker, could never explain. Anyone who has ever smoked knows cigarettes are addictive and, as the pack now tells you, extremely bad for your health. Among other things, they can give you cancer.

But the jury listened to the slick words of Reynolds's lawyer, Thomas Workman, who said that Galbraith smoked because he "loved it. He liked the taste. The evidence has shown he could quit when he wanted to." The evidence also showed that Galbraith was sneaking smokes as he lay dying of lung cancer and heart and respiratory problems. Evidence or no evidence, it doesn't take a visit from Nancy Reagan to certify a person as an addict.

Still, Workman (a smoker of Camel Lights) has a point. Even though cigarettes are both unhealthy and addictive, and even though they are advertised as neither, it was still within Galbraith's power to quit the weed and stop contributing to his own death. The task is not easy, but it can be done. As the old joke goes, I have done it several times -- the last time, I hope, for good.

Galbraith is dead, and it is neither fruitful nor, probably, in good taste to chastize him for lacking will power. But what about R. J. Reynolds? The men who run that company know that cigarettes are both addictive and unhealthy and yet they do not hesitate to say otherwise. The company simply washes its hands of the consequences of what it manufactures, endorsing the ethical values parodied by Tom Lehrer in his song about one- time Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun: "Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? It's not my department, says Werner Von Braun."

But it ought to be R. J. Reynolds' department and sooner or later the courts will say it is. The principle that cigarette makers are at least partially responsible for the bad health of smokers is not that different from the one the New Jersey Supreme Court applied to the hosts of a particular legally drunk guest. After he had consumed about 13 scotches, his hosts escorted him to his car and watched as he drove off -- not into the suset, but into another car. With the court's blessing, the other driver sued everyone in sight -- including the erstwhile hosts. In the end, she recovered from them all.

The New Jersey ruling really just proclaimed common sense. Anyone who serves someone 13 scotches and allows that person to drive off has a fair idea of what the consequences could be. It is the same with the tobacco companies -- or it ought to be. They surely know by now what can happen to someone who smokes for a lifetime. And yet, they not only continue to manufacture their product, they advertise it in such a way as to rebut the message that smoking is unhealthy. In this way, they contribute to the deaths of many people -- maybe not Galbraith, whose death may not have been directly caused by smoking -- but surely others. For a Marxist, the cigarette companies must look like a gift from heaven -- or whatever the comparable Marxist expression may be. They are caricatures of the conscienceless corporation, the ruthless exploiter of man and mankind. With their money, they buy the best minds in the advertising business to sell their product and the best brains in the legal profession to defend it. So far they have staved off the inevitable. But eventually, a court will set a precedent. After that, the deluge.

In the meantime, though, the law has made a fool of itself. A jury has found cigarettes nonaddictive and R. J. Reynolds blameless for the death of John Galbraith. In fact, both the cigarette company and Galbraith had reached a fine understanding: they made the cigarettes, he smoked them, and they both knew they could kill.