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Anthrax widow's lawsuit blames U.S. for death

/ Source: The Associated Press

The widow of a tabloid photo editor who died in the 2001 anthrax attacks insisted in a $50 million federal lawsuit filed years ago that the U.S. government was ultimately responsible for his death.

Now that the FBI is pinning the blame on government scientist Bruce Ivins, the lawsuit brought by Maureen Stevens looks positively clairvoyant. And results of the FBI investigation could have a major effect on the outcome of her case.

"We were right all along," Patrick Hogan, the son-in-law of Maureen and the late Robert Stevens, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It seems to me it's pretty much a slam dunk."

Stevens was a photo editor at American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, Sun and Globe gossip tabloids, when he was exposed to anthrax that was mailed to AMI offices in Boca Raton. Stevens died Oct. 5, 2001, the first of five people to be killed and 17 others to be sickened in the anthrax attacks.

Two years later, Maureen Stevens filed her lawsuit. In it, she claims the U.S. government was negligent because it failed to safeguard strains of the deadly anthrax bacteria at the U.S. Army disease research center at Fort Detrick, Md.

'We've maintained all along this was an inside job'
The government, her lawsuit says, "owed a duty of care, the highest degree of care" in handling of anthrax and supervising employees who had access to it. Although she didn't know it when the lawsuit was filed, Ivins was one of those employees, a microbiologist who was working on an anthrax antidote. Ivins committed suicide last week as he was being investigated.

"One of the real areas of satisfaction, if you can call it that, is that we've maintained all along this was an inside job," said Richard Schuler, Maureen Stevens' attorney.

The case is unique among the legal actions brought after the anthrax attacks, according to the lawyers involved. Employees of a postal facility in Washington, D.C., where two workers died, sued the Postal Service for allegedly failing to protect them, but a federal judge in 2004 ruled the service is immune.

If the federal government ultimately names Ivins as the anthrax attack perpetrator, Schuler said the government's lawyers should drop their long battle and settle the lawsuit. He noted that another scientist wrongly implicated by the FBI in the plot, Steven Hatfill, recently was paid $5.8 million to settle his lawsuit against the Justice Department.

"It's been a long road for this family," Schuler said. "I hope somebody who has some authority will call us and make it right with this family."

Maureen Stevens declined an interview request, deferring to her attorney. The lawsuit, also filed on behalf of the couple's three grown children, seeks a maximum of $50 million in compensatory damages for the government's alleged negligence in Stevens' death. Schuler said that figure represents the upper reaches of a possible damage award or settlement.

Two of the Stevens children did not return phone messages or e-mails seeking comment Tuesday. Hogan, husband of daughter Heidi, said he's hopeful that the FBI has its man in Ivins.

"It seems to me they botched this thing from the beginning. It was one of their own people," Hogan said. "I'm just very happy that they actually found somebody."

Feds fight to dismiss case
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman declined comment Tuesday on the lawsuit. But in court, federal attorneys have fought hard to get the Stevens claim dismissed and currently are appealing a federal judge's refusal to do so. The case is on hold pending the outcome of that.

One court document contends that even if a U.S. employee is found responsible for the anthrax attacks, those acts are "beyond the scope of employment" and the government isn't liable. In the alternative, the federal lawyers say such actions were controlled by someone else and not the government, so it shouldn't have to pay the Stevens family.

"The United States denies as a matter of law and fact that the plaintiff is entitled to the relief sought," the government lawyers said in court papers.

The next development in the lawsuit will be a ruling later this year from the Florida Supreme Court on whether the U.S. government and a private laboratory named as a possible second source of the anthrax have a duty under Florida law to protect the public from such lethal materials.

The state court was asked to resolve that legal question by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which is considering the government's appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley refusing to dismiss the case.