Settlement reached in anthrax death lawsuit

MIAMI – The widow of a Florida tabloid photo editor who died in the 2001 anthrax mailings has reached a settlement in her lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Maureen Stevens of Lake Worth and the government have reached a tentative agreement that must be approved by the Justice Department, according to court documents filed late last week in West Palm Beach federal court.

In her lawsuit, originally filed in 2003, Stevens had claimed the government was negligent in failing to stop someone working at an Army infectious disease lab from creating weapons-grade anthrax used in letters that killed five people and sickened 17 others. Her husband, Robert Stevens, was the first victim.

Details of the settlement were not disclosed. Stevens’ lawsuit had sought as much as $50 million in damages.

Stevens declined comment Sunday and referred questions to her attorney, Richard Schuler. Neither Schuler nor the government’s trial attorney immediately returned messages left by The Associated Press on Sunday.

A federal judge in West Palm Beach set Wednesday to hear arguments to dismiss the lawsuit. A trial had been set for early 2012.

Robert Stevens worked in Boca Raton at American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, Sun and Globe tabloids, when he was exposed to anthrax. He died Oct. 5, 2001.

In court documents, the government contended that there was no proof its actions, or lack of adequate security or precautions, directly caused his death. The motions also rejected Maureen Stevens’ claim that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., had a history dating to 1992 of missing pathogens and failure to track dangerous microbes.

An FBI criminal investigation concluded in 2010 that a lone federal scientist, Bruce Ivins, staged the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001. The anthrax was mailed to locations in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., including a Senate office building.

Ivins committed suicide in 2008 as the investigation closed in around him.

New documents filed in Stevens’ lawsuit in the spring cast doubt on whether Ivins acted alone. In sworn statements, two of Ivins’ superiors said they didn’t believe the scientist was solely to blame for the attacks.

The U.S. government reached a $5.8 million settlement with another former Fort Detrick scientist, Steven Hatfill, whom then-Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified as “a person of interest” in the investigation in 2001. Hatfill was eventually cleared, and he sued the government, accusing the Justice Department of violating his privacy.