NEWARK, JUNE 13 -- A federal jury late today held a tobacco company partially responsible for the death of a smoker, the first such ruling in more than 300 tobacco liability lawsuits dating back to the 1950s.

The jury ruled that Liggett Group Inc. must pay damages of $400,000 to Antonio Cipollone, whose wife died of lung cancer after smoking for nearly 43 years. But the jury also fully exonerated two codefendants in the trial, Philip Morris Inc. and Lorillard Inc., of any responsibility for the disease that killed Rose Cipollone before she turned 59.

Although the verdict is the first to hold a tobacco company liable for injuries to a smoker, the outcome was mixed and sometimes puzzling. Both sides claimed victories, but say they will seek to have portions of the outcome reviewed by the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin, or the federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

The federal jury found Liggett Group partially to blame for the 1984 death of Rose Cipollone, a New Jersey woman who smoked the company's Chesterfields and L&M cigarettes from 1942 to 1968.

During the four-month trial, the plaintiff charged that Lorillard, Liggett and Philip Morris misled the public about the dangers of cigarette smoking and contributed to Mrs. Cipollone's death.

The companies contended she made an intelligent, strong-willed choice to smoke knowing the risks. They argued smoking is not a proven cause of cancer, and that her type of cancer isn't linked to cigarettes.

The critical difference among the defendants arose from an appeals court ruling that the federal law that put health cautions on cigarette packages relieved manufacturers of an obligation to provide additional warnings about the dangers of smoking.

The law took effect on Jan. 1, 1966. Until then, Mrs. Cipollone had smoked only Liggett cigarettes. Starting in 1968, she switched first to Philip Morris and then to Lorillard brands.

After deliberating for 4 1/2 days, the jury found that Liggett should "have warned consumers {prior to 1966} regarding the health risks of smoking," and its failure to warn was "a proximate cause" or contributing factor to all or some of Mrs. Cipollone's smoking, and of her lung cancer and death.

The same failure of Liggett to warn led her to "voluntarily and unreasonably encounter a known danger by smoking," the jury said in its verdict.

However, the jury found that Liggett's conduct didn't merit an award of punitive damages because the company was only 20 percent responsible for Rose Cipollone's death. Her decision to smoke, and to continue to smoke, made her 80 percent responsible, the jury found. Under New Jersey law, a defendant isn't liable unless shown to be more than 50 percent responsible.

Through its advertising, the jury found, Liggett falsely guaranteed that its products were safe. The company, which sponsored extensive research in the 1950s, also failed in its duty to warn smokers of the health risk they were taking in using cigarettes until such warnings were legally required in 1966, the jury ruled.

The jury also found that the plaintiff's lawyers failed to prove "all of the elements necessary to establish fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment" by the tobacco industry"We've won where nobody has won before." -- Plaintiff's attorney Marc Z. Edell about the health risks of smoking. And it found that there was no "conspiracy prior to 1966 to fraudulently misrepresent and/or conceal material facts concerning" those risks.

The jurors declined press requests to discuss the verdict, which was announced shortly before 5 p.m. By then the stock market had been closed for nearly an hour.

"We're very, very happy," Marc Z. Edell, the lead plaintiff's lawyer, told reporters. "We're not another notch in their gun. We've won where nobody has won before."

He called the verdict a victory because the jury concluded that Liggett "should have been warning consumers back in the 1940s," was "lying to these consumers in their advertising," and "awarded $400,000 to Tony."

He said the $400,000 "is not going to cover costs, that's for sure," but is an "investment" in future tobacco litigation.

This is "only the beginning," Edell said. "What we got in this case will be building blocks in other cases ..."

He and his colleagues, Cynthia A. Walters and Alan M. Darnell, have six other tobacco cases pending in New Jersey courts.

In addition, they and other plaintiffs' lawyers have access to the approximately 100,000 internal documents obtained from the defendants, who were required to provide unprecedented access to documents in their files.

Edell called the coupling of an award to Antonio Cipollone with the denial of damages to his wife "totally inconsistent," and the plaintiffs said they will ask the judge to award damages to Rose Cipollone.

"The jury, for whatever reason, didn't like Mrs. Cipollone," Edell said.

Philip Morris attorney Peter K. Bleakley told a reporter the verdict struck him as "bizarre."

Liggett lawyer Donald J. Cohn called it "basically a clear victory for the defendants," saying it sent a message "loud and clear that Americans have freedom of choice and are responsible for their actions."

Cohn said that Sarokin erred in instructing the jury on whether Liggett's cigarette advertising created a safety warranty to its customers, and said that he will appeal to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The reaction outside the courtroom appeared as mixed as the decision.

One Wall Street analyst who follows the tobacco companies said the decision was "an 80 percent victory for the industry." Diana Temple, a vice president and analyst for Salomon Brothers Inc., said, "There was no misrepresentation ... There was no conspiracy and she was 80 percent responsible for her lung cancer."

But opponents of the tobacco industry predicted that the verdict, even if modified or overturned on appeal, would trigger hundreds more suits against tobacco companies.

Richard A. Daynard, the Northeastern University law professor who heads the Tobacco Liability Project, called it "a tremendous victory. It's the first time the industry has been held accountable for the tremendous death and disease its products cause ... There is no question that this will encourage a large number of additional lawsuits."

Dr. Alan Blum, founder and chairman of Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), a physicians' antismoking organization, said the industry "can't afford to have any element of this case lost. Now the window is open ... This is permanent tobacco stain that can no longer be simply brushed away with the tales of scientific double talk that the tobacco industry medical people wove during this trial."

John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who heads Action on Smoking and Health, said, "I think this may be the beginning of the end for the tobacco industry. I think 24 hours from now, we're going to have hundreds of smokers and their families trying to bring these suits and dozens of attorneys now willing to take them on."

And to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the decision was a "significant and long overdue breakthrough. This crack in the tobacco industry's liability armor will have implications far beyond the specifics of this case."

CHRONOLOGY

Here are key dates in the case Rose and Antonio Cipollone brought against Lorillard Inc., Philip Morris Co. and Liggett Group Inc.: 1941-42 -- Rose Cipollone begins smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, made by Liggett. 1953 -- Dr. Ernest Wynder performs experiments in which cigarette tar is found to cause tumors in mice. Jan. 4, 1954 -- Responding to the research, cigarette companies take out newspaper advertisements contending that cigarettes are safe. 1955 -- Mrs. Cipollone switches to L&M, a Liggett brand. 1964 -- The surgeon general issues his first report linking cancer and other diseases to cigarettes. 1966 -- Federal law requires warnings on cigarette packs. 1968 -- Mrs. Cipollone switches to Virginia Slims, a Philip Morris brand. 1971 -- Cigarette advertising banned from television and radio. Mrs. Cipollone switches to Parliament, a Philip Morris brand. 1974 -- Mrs. Cipollone switches to True Blues, a Lorillard brand. 1981 -- Cancer is detected in Mrs. Cipollone's right lung and a tumor is removed. 1982 -- The cancer reappears and Mrs. Cipollone's right lung is removed. Aug. 1, 1983 -- The Cipollones file suit. Mrs. Cipollone stops smoking sometime during the year. Oct. 21, 1984 -- Mrs. Cipollone dies.