Published March 23. 2010 4:00AM Updated March 23. 2010 8:09AM
Hartford - A former Pfizer Inc. scientist with a rare illness said in testimony Monday in U.S. District Court that her former employer ignored repeated requests for records that might tie her condition to novel viruses being studied in the company's Groton laboratories.
But an attorney for Pfizer, in his first cross-examination of molecular biologist Becky McClain of Deep River, tried to show that the company responded to many of McClain's safety complaints - and that she might have been lax in preventing her own possible infection.
McClain, on the stand to start a second week of a federal civil trial in which she alleges that Pfizer fired her in retaliation for making safety complaints, said she spent sleepless nights in fear of what might have been causing episodes of paralysis.
"It was incredibly stressful," she said.
McClain said she wrote two letters to Pfizer at the suggestion of a contact at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The company did not initially respond to her letters requesting exposure records, she testified.
Five days after McClain sent her second request for exposure records, she received a termination notice from Pfizer, according to testimony.
After being let go by Pfizer - a firing that the company says occurred because she abandoned her job during a lengthy period in which she claimed illness - McClain testified she had trouble finding work. Without any references from Pfizer officials, she said, "The possibility of getting another job in this career does not look hopeful."
McClain said she applied and got into Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, but had to withdraw as her illness progressed.
Pfizer attorney William J. Anthony and McClain sparred over whether she took enough precautions to prevent her own illness. McClain said she would have taken more precautions had she known a virus was in her work area, but there were no outward signs that someone had left a virus, as she has contended, on her workbench.
McClain, according to testimony, had complained about the lab setup being potentially dangerous even before she became concerned about her own exposure to a virus. The idea proferred by Anthony that she could have used gloves to type at her workstation - which was right next to the bench where she and others performed experiments - elicited a strong reaction from McClain.
"It was impossible to do that," she said. "It was the whole issue (she and others had been complaining about)."
McClain also had a strong response to Anthony's suggestion that she didn't report an infectious agent in a lab hallway where scientists routinely ate lunch. McClain said she had neglected to report the infectious agent because she had been told it didn't hold potential harm for humans.
"If I had known it was a human infectious agent, you bet I would have reported it," McClain said.
At another point, responding to a question about a supervisor's note stressing the importance of lab safety, McClain indicated the note didn't necessarily mean the Pfizer official, John McNeish, was truly concerned - especially considering another e-mail she cited in earlier testimony in which he claimed not to know about any safety concerns in the labs.
"Was he indifferent or being pressured by upper management?" she asked rhetorically. "I don't know."
Anthony pointed out that e-mails seemed to indicate that other Pfizer officials - including Jim Hime and Peter McCarthy - knew about McClain's complaints at a time when even McClain admitted there were no signs of retaliation.
Anthony also suggested that McClain had declined to accept a move to another Pfizer lab - a suggestion McClain denied.