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Published Oct. 31, 2008

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the widow of a Lantana man who died in 2001 after inhaling anthrax spores can sue the federal government over whether it secured its biological weapons materials.

Maureen Stevens, wife of Robert Stevens, has been trying to sue the government since 2003, says Jason Weisser, her attorney.

Robert Stevens was the first of five people to die in a series of attacks when letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

This year, the FBI identified Bruce E. Ivins, 62, a scientist who worked at Fort Detrick, Md., as their primary suspect. He committed suicide before an arrest.

Stevens seeks compensation and information about her husband's death. Weisser says the Justice Department has blocked efforts to learn about the death.

Justice Department attorneys contend that the government can't be held responsible for "third-party criminal activity allegedly occasioned by negligent security practices," according to court records.

The question still remains whether the federal government did its job to secure the materials, but the Florida Supreme Court said scientific laboratories that make, grow or test biohazards "owe a duty of reasonable care to members of the general public to avoid an unauthorized interception and dissemination of the materials," wrote Justice Harry Anstead in the 4-1 opinion.

The case will ultimately return to the Southern federal district court in West Palm Beach and could take years to be resolved.