The “high stakes poker game” between the insurance industry and US tobacco companies took an unusual twist this week.

A legal action launched by 27 former Mississippi shipyard workers could, if successful, be the best possible news for Equitas, the Lloyd's run-off vehicle, a top analyst claims.

The claimants, all smokers, are suing tobacco companies, claiming that smoking put them at increased risk from asbestos-related illnesses.

Tony Silverman, chief European insurance analyst at Credit Lyonnais Securities, said that Equitas, which has a history of paying enormous sums in asbestos claims, could try to recover these massive payouts from tobacco companies, alleging they misrepresented the safety of cigarettes.

The Mississippi case could help establish whether tobacco companies are liable for the tragic increase in illnesses, usually associated exclusively with asbestos, but which only seem to occur when asbestos and tobacco exposure are combined.

Silverman said: “There is a game of high stakes poker being played by the insurance industry and tobacco companies.”

He believes the game is only unfolding slowly because of the “strategic stand-off” between the two camps.

The cards held by the tobacco companies are their potential claims against insurers for the enormous costs of paying and settling tobacco suits in the US.

“If tobacco companies attempt to use product liability policies to recover any damages, then Equitas could be liable,” said Silverman.

But he added that both sides were deadlocked because insurers could use their health insurance arms to counter-claim against tobacco companies. Silverman said that despite the high stakes, both sides' poker hands were of uncertain value.

Union-backed insurance funds in the US have already attempted to sue the US tobacco companies, but they have successfully fought off these claims.

These cases were lost largely because the union funds did not have a true insurance relationship with their members and could not rely on subrogation to sue.

But he stressed that health insurance group Blue Cross was mounting a “shopping list” of claims against tobacco companies involving precisely the issue of subrogation.

The legal action could hot up dramatically, if either the tobacco companies or the insurers look like they could be winning.

“At the moment, neither side wants to risk a showdown. But the Mississippi and Blue Cross cases may expose the value of each player's poker hand.”