MIAMI (CNN) -- As tobacco companies near settlement of a costly court fight against state governments, another -- and potentially more costly -- suit is about to go to trial.
In the first lawsuit to address the health consequences of cigarette smoking on non-smokers, a class action lawsuit filed by airline flight attendants claims that they suffered lung cancer and other illnesses due to passive smoke.
"This is the first of the big ones," Richard Daynard, an anti-smoking activist who heads the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston.
The $5 billion case, known as Broin vs. Philip Morris Co., et al, is expected to go to trial on Monday. Named for Norma Broin, who is 42 and suffers lung cancer, it was brought by flight attendants who claim their lung cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses were caused by passengers' cigarette smoke.
Smoking was banned on U.S. airliners in 1988.
Among the witnesses for the flight attendants will be two former U.S. surgeon generals and physicians and scientists drawing on a decade or more of research on secondhand smoke, said Stanley Rosenblatt, attorney for the plaintiffs.
A Harvard University study published last week which found a strong link between heart disease and secondhand smoke is expected to strengthen the flight attendants case.
But attorneys representing the flight attendants say the current negotiations between tobacco companies and state attorneys general will hinder their case.
"We are, quite frankly, suspicious that a plan is in the works to prevent our national class action, on behalf of some 60,000 flight attendants, from going to trial on Monday," Rosenblatt said.
The attorney predicted the insiders will reach a global settlement this week. A key issue is whether tobacco manufacturers must reimburse states for Medicaid health care costs of smokers.
"These [are] secret negotiations by essentially a bunch of politically ambitious attorneys general," Rosenblatt said. "They want their cases to reimburse the treasuries of Florida and other states."
But Rosenblatt says such an agreement will leave the flight attendants with little or nothing because it will cap damages against the tobacco industry and give them immunity.
But Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth, who predicts a draft settlement with the tobacco industry in two to three weeks, said that's not correct. "Anything we're doing will have no impact on his case," he said.
If the trial does proceed as scheduled on Monday the first step will be to select a jury. Six members, smokers and non smokers, will be considered.
In the case, cigarette companies won't be able to use one of their traditional defenses -- that smokers are aware of the possible health risks of smoking and voluntarily chose to smoke.
"One of the most successful defenses for tobacco companies is that the smokers knew of the risks," said Professor Michael Zimmer of the Seton Hall School of Law in New Jersey. "In secondhand smoke, you don't have that."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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