The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a tobacco industry request to intervene in a lawsuit by over a thousand West Virginia smokers.
The justices declined to examine a trial procedure in which a jury first determines whether smokers as a group are entitled to punitive damages before establishing whether any single smoker is entitled to compensation.
Later, a new jury addresses issues unique to each alleged smoking victim who sued.
West Virginia courts are allowing the approach, which has been used in other types of lawsuits, including claims for asbestos exposure.
The second phases of such trials rarely occur, because the two sides usually settle once they know the value of the case.
Tobacco companies oppose use of the legal device, which lawyers call "reverse bifurcation."
The tobacco industry said a jury doesn't know until later in a case whether any smoker was actually harmed or how serious any injury was; which defendants if any were responsible; or the amount of compensatory damages any defendant owes to smokers.
In addition to helping resolve suits over asbestos exposure, reverse bifurcation has been applied to claims against makers of the dangerous diet drug fen-phen.
In asking the justices not to take the case, lawyers for the smokers said further delay would mean that most of their clients would die before their cases could be tried, "thus affording the defendants a free pass" for their alleged misconduct.
The smokers say the companies secretly agreed not to market a truly safer cigarette while publicly proclaiming the safety of their own particular brands.
The first phase of the trial was scheduled to begin March 18.
The case is Philip Morris USA v. Accord, 07-806.