Published January 19. 2010 4:00AM
A former Pfizer Inc. scientist who claims to have been infected by an unknown virus at the company's Groton laboratories will have her civil lawsuit heard in U.S. District Court in Hartford.
Becky McClain of Deep River, a molecular biologist who filed her suit nearly three years ago in New London Superior Court, confirmed last week that the jury trial is scheduled to commence in March on allegations that Pfizer violated whistleblower laws and exposed her to a hazardous workplace. McClain, who also charges that Pfizer violated her freedom of speech by terminating her after she pressed workplace complaints, is a former member of the company's safety committee.
McClain's attorney, Bruce E. Newman of Bristol, originally had filed suit on 11 counts, but eight of the complaints have been dismissed. Newman said in a phone interview that he considers the case to be precedent-setting because there are few government standards regulating the bioengineering field.
Pfizer denies all of the suit's most substantive charges. The company "does not retaliate against employees who raise health and safety concerns," according to Pfizer's response to the suit. The response also denies that McClain was wrongfully discharged.
"We have thoroughly investigated Ms. McClain's claims and our investigation concluded that her workplace was safe and that she was not infected by any virologic materials while she was employed by Pfizer," company spokeswoman Liz Power said in an e-mail.
"Pfizer is committed to protecting the health and safety of our colleagues and the communities in which we operate," Power said.
McClain, who worked at Pfizer for nearly a decade before being terminated in 2005, was employed in Groton's embryonic stem cells program when she said she became ill after being subjected to repeated noxious fumes coming from the hood of a device at Lab B313. She said her supervisor also became ill, but later conspired to cover up the incident, warning her that she "would lose her job if she made too big an issue out of lab safety," according to the suit.
McClain said she asked for a transfer out of Lab B313 because of ongoing health concerns. Later, she developed chronic fatigue symptoms, according to the suit, and discovered that a co-worker had been working next to her with a "dangerous lentivirus material and embryonic stem cells on an open lab bench without biological containment."
McClain later went on medical leave, according to the suit, but "continued to raise safety concerns which were never addressed," including filing five complaints about Pfizer's lab with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She received a termination notice during her medical leave, the suit said, despite the fact that "Pfizer had promised McClain that she would not be retaliated against in any way for raising health and safety concerns."
OSHA never moved forward on her complaints, McClain said in a separate interview, largely because federal worker-safety laws have not kept pace with the rising hazards in U.S. laboratories.
"McClain was penalized in terms of her performance appraisals at Pfizer and ultimately terminated as a result of exercising her free-speech rights," according to the suit.
The lawsuit, which seeks more than $75,000 in damages, said McClain had counted on Pfizer to maintain a safe work environment. Instead, her continued exposure to genetically engineered viruses, according to the documents, has resulted in the 51-year-old scientist developing a condition that leads to periodic paralysis, joint pain and fatigue.
"During these attacks, it is difficult for her to speak and she has no voluntary muscle control," the suit stated. "The attacks themselves are accompanied by a severe chest pain and spinal pain."
The suit said the condition is believed to be permanent, and there is no known cure.