News & Events

Whistleblower/OSHA/AIDS story: biolab worker wins award from jury

By EDMUND H. MAHONY The Hartford Courant
April 2, 2010
HARTFORD — – A former Pfizer scientist who claims that she has been paralyzed by inadvertent exposure to a virus engineered at the pharmaceutical company’s laboratories in Groton was awarded $1.37 million Thursday by a federal jury in Hartford following a trial that raised questions about safety practices in the dynamic field of genetic engineering.

The jury also gave molecular biologist Becky McClain of Deep River yet-to-be-determined punitive damages to cover the costs of litigation and fees to her two Connecticut lawyers, Bruce E. Newman and Stephen J. Fitzgerald.

In her lawsuit, she said that in 2002 or 2003 she was exposed through work by a former Pfizer colleague to a genetically engineered form of the lentivirus, a virus similar to the one that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Medical experts working for McClain said they believe that the virus has affected the way her body processes potassium and that it has created a condition that causes paralysis as many as 12 times a month.

McClain claimed that she was fired by Pfizer in 2005 in retaliation for her repeatedly expressed concern about lab safety practices — practices that she believes contributed to her condition and forced her to take an extended medical leave.

Ultimately, the jury was not permitted to hear evidence supporting McClain’s claim of a causal link between her disability and the cutting-edge virus research done at the laboratory in Groton.

Days before the two-week trial began, U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant ruled that McClain lacked the evidence to meet the legal requirement to argue to the jury that her disability was the result of a lab exposure. Bryant also ruled that such claims should be made to the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.

The jury based its verdict on evidence concerning McClain’s two remaining claims — that her dismissal violated Connecticut’s whistle-blower law and her right to free speech. Her lawyers contended that a safety complaint McClain made to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was a whistle-blower complaint and that her discussion of safety issues with fellow workers amounted to protected speech.

McClain was awarded $685,000 on each count to cover past and future earnings losses and quality-of-life deterioration due to stress.

Although there was no direct testimony linking safety and McClain’s health, jurors learned that McClain’s medical leave was linked to her work. The jury also examined an exhibit that referenced McClain’s belief that her medical condition was the result of workplace exposure.

Workplace safety advocates, who contend that advances in biotechnology have outstripped the federal government’s ability to enforce laboratory safety, have closely followed McClain’s case.

"We are going to make sure down here in Washington that this verdict gets OSHA’s attention, right at the top of the agency," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said Thursday. "And they are going to have to start staffing up for this kind of toxic hazard in laboratories."

Steve Zeltzer, chairman of the San Francisco-based California Coalition For Workers Memorial Day, said: "Becky McClain’s case is not over for us and many others and our struggle will continue to protect injured workers."

Pfizer has contended throughout the litigation that McClain was fired after the quality of her work deteriorated and she refused to accept a variety of reassignments that the company offered during her medical leave. Pfizer defended its laboratory safety practices and argued that there was no connection between McClain’s disability and work done at the laboratory.

Pfizer spokeswoman Elizabeth Power said Thursday: "We are disappointed with the verdict and do not believe the facts of this case warrant the conclusion reached by the jury. We are now considering our post-trial options."

"Pfizer is committed to protecting the health and safety of our colleagues and the communities in which we operate," Power said. "In addition to our commitment to full compliance with environmental, health and safety laws and regulations, we have companywide policies, standards and programs combined with site-level management systems and initiatives tailored to the particular safety issues and needs at each location."

As a molecular biologist at Pfizer, McClain studied human cells on a molecular level, manipulating genetic codes in an effort to develop vaccines.

One issue not resolved at trial — and one that lawyers believe will probably remain unresolved — is McClain’s effort to compel Pfizer to give her precise information about the DNA sequencing of the engineered lentivirus that she suspects infected her. McClain contends that without the sequencing information, she is unable to attempt to design what could amount to a cure for her conditions.

At the conclusion of an often-hostile series of pretrial exchanges, Pfizer said, in effect, that it had given McClain all the information it has.

In a statement released by her lawyers Thursday, McClain said she would continue her efforts to obtain the sequencing information.

"I am disappointed … that I have not yet received from Pfizer the exposure records that will help me get directed medical care, but I will continue to advocate for myself and others who have suffered workplace harm," she said. "I hope this verdict opens a national discussion on the dangers of exposure in the biotechnology workplace and the lack of biotech worker rights to a safe environment. I especially hope it will bring about changes which will afford injured biotech workers the right to obtain the exposure records necessary for their health care."
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