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A Nashville judge erred in dismissing lawsuits filed on behalf of multibillion-dollar pension funds and other Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. shareholders against current and former executives of the nation's largest hospital company, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sent the cases back to U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins to consider the merits of the shareholders' arguments that mismanagement by the company's directors and officers devalued the Nashville-based company.

The ruling "is a tremendous victory" for the nearly 1 million members of New York state pension fund and other shareholders, said New York Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who filed the first of the shareholders' lawsuit against 13 current or former directors or senior officers.

McCall and other shareholders alleged that company executives knew about the fraud and the investigation before it became public but did not act -- except to make money for themselves through insider stock trading.

Business inventories up 0.1%

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Inventories of unsold goods on shelves and backlots rose by a tiny 0.1 percent in December and matched the increase in sales, suggesting that companies are working off excess supplies.

The Commerce Department reported today that the small advance pushed total inventories to a seasonally adjusted $1.22 trillion and sales rose to $896.8 billion.

The 0.1 percent rise in inventories was the smallest since the same-sized increase posted in January 1999.

The inventory-to-sales ratio, which measures how long it would take businesses to exhaust their inventories at December's sales pace, remained at 1.36 months. The ratio had risen to 1.36 months in November, the highest since April 1999.

Microsoft stake in Corel probed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal antitrust investigators are investigating whether Microsoft's stake in rival Corel Corp. reduces competition in the market for office software like word processing and spreadsheets.

The investigation was confirmed both by the Justice Department and by Microsoft.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Microsoft's share in Corel reduces competition in the market for office software packages. Microsoft already dominates that market with its Microsoft Office software.

Corel's WordPerfect Office software is important for competition as it is also available in a version based on Linux, an operating system that competes with Windows.

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