The tobacco industry filed its appeal Monday in the trial that produced a record $145 billion verdict for sick Florida smokers, claiming pretrial decisions and the two-year trial were riddled with legal flaws.

The nation's biggest cigarette makers challenged decisions grouping all of the smokers in a single class-action lawsuit and attacked the punitive damage award as "bankrupting and excessive." 

"Each of the phases of the case were infected with legal error and tainted with the misconduct of counsel," Philip Morris Cos. vice president Bill Ohlemeyer said in a news teleconference after the filing. The trial was tarnished by "a series of critical errors by the trial judge leading to an unconstitutional and unjust result." 

The 174-page appeal is the first stage of what is expected to be a prolonged legal battle over the verdict reached in July 2000. 

Attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, who represented smokers in the Miami-Dade Circuit Court trial, had no reaction to the appeal itself but expects to take longer than the standard 30 days to respond. 

"Undoubtedly with the thickness of the appendix, we may very well need an extension. It's a massive amount of material," he said. "I was advised it's in two boxes." 

Besides questioning the legal basis for many trial decisions, the appeal attacked Rosenblatt's trial rhetoric. 

"Where are the lines that can't be crossed that prevent a party from getting a fair trial?" Ohlemeyer asked reporters. "Florida law and your sense of fairness and justice tell you that something happened in the case that shouldn't have happened." 

Rosenblatt "compared defendants to defenders of slavery and the Holocaust" before a predominantly black jury, the industry said, citing the smokers' closing arguments in the first phase of the three-part trial. 

The jury returned with findings that cigarettes were deadly and addictive, opening the door for $12.7 million in compensatory damage awards for three smokers and group punitive damages - the largest jury award ever. 

Ohlemeyer said he would be surprised if the appeal to the 3rd District Court of Appeals in Miami, the initial venue for appeals in Florida, is heard before next fall. 

Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Salomon Smith Barney, called the court filing "powerful and persuasive" and probably the most costly court document ever prepared by the industry. 

The defendants are Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and the Liggett Group. 

Liggett, the smallest of the industry's five biggest companies, filed separate appeal papers that also adopted the joint court filing by the other companies. 

The four largest companies settled lawsuits by 46 states trying to recover the public costs of smoking-related illnesses for $206 billion in 1998. Earlier settlements with the other four states boosted the overall total to $246 billion being paid over 25 years.