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Last Updated

25 Sep 2003

Source:  Palm Beach Post, September 25, 2003

Anthrax victim's family sues U.S. government

By William Cooper Jr., Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH -- The family of the first victim of the anthrax attacks sued the federal government Wednesday, claiming U.S. officials failed to secure a Maryland laboratory where the deadly bacterium was stored, according to the lawsuit.

Richard D. Schuler, a West Palm Beach attorney representing the family of Robert Stevens (case 5), also filed suit against two corporations that handled anthrax.

In February, Schuler notified government officials of his intent to sue.

The government had six months to reply, but there were no settlement negotiations between the family and federal officials, Schuler said.

The wrongful-death claim seeks $50 million in damages.

The federal government has only recently communicated with the Stevens family, Schuler said.

In July officials from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department came to West Palm Beach to update the family about the anthrax investigation, Schuler said.

Stevens, 63, died Oct. 5, 2001, after being exposed to anthrax while working as a photo editor at American Media Inc. headquarters in Boca Raton.

Stevens, who lived in suburban Lantana, is believed to have contracted anthrax from an envelope sent to AMI, which publishes supermarket tabloids including the Star and The National Enquirer.

Stevens died 3 1/2 days after he walked into the emergency room at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis with flu-like symptoms. Until two weeks ago, the FBI had kept Stevens' autopsy report from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office a secret.

Schuler said the family received portions of the report, which determined that Stevens died from anthrax inhalation and described the failure of his internal organs.

"His internal organs swelled, filled up with fluid and collapsed inside his body," said Schuler. "It was a horrible death."

The lawsuit seeks damages for Stevens' survivors: His wife, Maureen Stevens, 60, and children, Nicholas, 42, Heidi, 38, and Casey, 23.

Charles Miller, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman in Washington, said federal officials would not comment on the lawsuit.

The Stevens family refused to comment, according to Schuler.

Schuler contends that the Ames strain of anthrax killed Stevens.

Research shows the strain originated in laboratories operated by the federal government.

The Ames strain was among some deadly specimens missing from a lab in Fort Detrick, Md., that was run by the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases.

A memo from an age-discrimination case involving three former scientists there revealed that 27 specimens, including the deadly Ebola virus, were missing from the lab.

Dr. Ayaad Assaad, one of the scientists who filed the age-discrimination lawsuit, is certain that the anthrax strain that killed Stevens came from the Fort Detrick laboratory. He has said security was lax because workers were poorly trained.

Schuler claims that, because of a lack of security, the anthrax could have been lost or obtained at Fort Detrick or one of the laboratories it had sent anthrax to.

Because of that, Schuler on Wednesday sued two corporations, accusing them of negligence in handling anthrax.

The lawsuit, filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court on behalf of Maureen Stevens, names Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, a private contractor for the Pentagon, and BioPort Corp., of Lansing, Mich., which manufactures an anthrax vaccine.

The lawsuit says Battelle, BioPort and other corporations were in the business of manufacturing, handling, transporting, storing or testing anthrax.

"We believe they are one of a group of perhaps 12 or so companies that potentially could be the source," Schuler said.

While federal officials are trying to find the source of the anthrax, the person who mailed the deadly powder remains a mystery. For Schuler's case, however, that's a question he doesn't have to answer.

"We have not been told of any suspects or where the investigation has led in terms of ultimately who did this," Schuler said. "Under Florida law, all we have to do is prove where it came from."