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First flight attendant smoking claim goes to trial

A former TWA flight attendant who says she got emphysema from passengers' cigarette smoke went to court Monday in the first of what could be thousands of minitrials to determine how much she and her colleagues should get in damages.

In 1997, the tobacco industry settled the flight attendants' class action lawsuit by agreeing to pay $349-million, with $300-million of that set aside for a medical research foundation. The rest went toward legal fees.

It is now up to the attendants to sue individually for damages.

More than 3,200 attendants have filed lawsuits in Miami for medical costs, pain and suffering.

On Monday, jury selection began in the first of these cases to reach trial. The case was brought by Marie Fontana, 58, a 23-year TWA attendant.

The six-member jury will be asked to decide whether cigarette smoke caused or aggravated her condition. The conduct of Fontana and the cigarette makers is not an issue before the panel.

Other attendants have pushed back their trial dates while the industry appeals a ruling regarding the settlement. But Fontana decided to move ahead because of her declining health, said her attorney, Steve Hunter.

Fontana, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area, flew primarily trans-Atlantic trips, where exposure to smoke was considered more intense than on short flights.

U.S. airlines banned smoking on domestic flights in 1990 and on international flights in 1997.

Fontana's lawsuit is against the nation's four biggest cigarette makers _ Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard.