AN ANTHRAX WIDOW MAY SUE U.S.
27 Nov 2002
Source: Hartford Courant, October 9, 2002.
An Anthrax Widow May Sue U.S.
Woman Whose Husband Died In Florida Is Angry At Army Lab's Possible Role As Bacteria's Source
By DAVE ALTIMARI And JACK DOLAN, Courant Staff Writers
Ineligible for financial aid to victims of Sept. 11 and angry over signs that an Army lab may have unwittingly provided the anthrax that killed her husband last fall, the widow of a Florida tabloid editor is exploring a lawsuit against the federal government.
A law firm retained by Maureen Stevens - whose husband, Robert (case 5), was the first of five people to die of inhalation anthrax in last year's mail attacks - has been investigating a potential wrongful-death claim against the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. The law firm has been collecting Army documents and has offered at least one former USAMRIID scientist $500 an hour to serve as an expert witness.
The claim would be that the Army was negligent because lax security at the USAMRIID labs could have allowed the anthrax killer to obtain a sample of the Ames strain that was sent through the mail in powdered form. USAMRIID obtained the Ames strain in the early 1980s and shared it with a handful of other labs over the years.
Robert Shuler, a West Palm Beach attorney who represents Stevens, said the government's decision to exclude anthrax victims from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund makes the civil suit his client's best chance to recover damages. Congress never approved legislation that would have added victims of the anthrax attacks to the fund, which, in Stevens' case, would have provided her up to $200,000.
"Maureen is on an island out there," Shuler said. "The president hasn't helped her, the Congress hasn't helped her and the FBI hasn't told her anything about why her husband died.
"She really has no other choices," he said. "She misses her husband terribly and feels somebody needs to be held responsible for what happened to him."
Army spokesman Chuck Dasey would not comment on the merits of Stevens' proposed claim. But he said there are still important questions that remain to be answered about whether the anthrax used in the attacks came from USAMRIID.
"People have a right to the courts, but
there's a big `if' there," Dasey said.
Among other things, federal investigators set about collecting samples from all known stocks of the Ames strain of anthrax. The strain was discovered in a dead cow in Texas in 1981, and sent to USAMRIID for study. Since then, the Army has shared Ames samples with more than a dozen government, university and private laboratories in at least three countries.
While scientists at many labs have been questioned, the FBI has concentrated its interviews and lie-detector tests on current and former USAMRIID employees, and publicly searched the apartment of a former USAMRIID scientist, Dr. Steven Hatfill. Many of the Army researchers who were questioned said they were asked if it would have been possible to secretly grow anthrax in a USAMRIID laboratory and then take it off the base.
The question of lax security at USAMRIID was first raised by The Courant last winter. During a 1992 inquiry, Army officials found evidence that someone was secretly entering a lab late at night to conduct unauthorized research, apparently involving anthrax. It also was revealed that 27 samples from a pathology lab, at least one of them Ames anthrax, had been lost during the period covered in the inquiry. The Army maintains that the samples posed no threat.
If a court believed that USAMRIID was the only source of Ames, and that it shared the deadly bacteria with labs that failed to keep it secure, then the burden might shift to the Army to prove it is not responsible for anthrax falling into the wrong hands, said Richard Bieder, a nationally known Connecticut plaintiff's lawyer. Bieder has lawsuits pending against the government on behalf of 40 families of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and of four people who died in the plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in 1996.
On the other hand, Bieder said, if a court believed that USAMRIID wasn't solely responsible, and a list of possible source labs for the attack anthrax could be completed, lawyers could try to hold them all accountable, dividing the potential damages among them.
Either strategy would be very expensive for the law firm handling the case, since so much investigative work and expert testimony would be required. Also, because the U.S. government is the defendant, it must first agree to hear the case against itself in federal court.
Rosemary McDermott, a Maryland lawyer who has represented a number of USAMRIID employees in lawsuits against the Army, agreed that any lawsuit against the government over the anthrax attacks would be an uphill battle.
"But the standard in this kind of case is preponderance of the evidence," McDermott added, "not proof beyond doubt."
Robert Stevens died four days after entering a Florida hospital with an undiagnosed illness that caused him to vomit and be short of breath. By the time hospital officials realized he had inhalation anthrax, he was hours from death. He left his wife and four grown children, the youngest of whom still lives at the couple's Lantana home. They have seven grandchildren.
At first, federal officials thought Stevens may have contracted anthrax while on a fishing trip to North Carolina, but tests at his desk inside the American Media Inc. building revealed anthrax all over his computer. The FBI was called in and started what has become known as the Amerithrax investigation.
Stevens turned out to be the first victim of a person who sent at least six letters to media representatives and to Sens. Thomas Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Four other people died; the last was 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) of Connecticut.
Shuler says Maureen Stevens has lived a fishbowl existence, particularly as the anniversary of her husband's death approaches. Media have staked out her home to the point where American Media hired a private security guard to keep people away.
She has given only one interview, with the tabloid newspaper at which her husband was the photo editor. In it, she described a 10-hour drive home from the North Carolina fishing trip as he got sicker and sicker.
When they got home, "He gave me a kiss goodnight as he always did and said `I love you,'" she said. "And those were his last coherent words to me."
When he later started vomiting and had trouble breathing, she rushed him to the emergency room. He was given a sedative and never woke up.