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Jury awards ex-Pfizer scientist $1.37 million

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published April 02. 2010 4:00AM   Updated April 02. 2010 6:22PM
Biotech safety verdict is hailed as a milestone; company weighs options

Becky McClain, a Deep River scientist who claims to have been infected by an experimental virus while working at Pfizer Inc.'s Groton laboratories, was awarded $1.37 million Thursday by a U.S. District Court jury in Hartford that found the company had retaliated against her and interfered with the fired worker's right to free speech.

The amount McClain receives could increase thanks to the jury's decision to also award punitive damages. The amount is up to Judge Vanessa Bryant, but typically in Connecticut punitive damages would include McClain's attorneys' fees plus an additional amount equal to the legal bills - pushing Pfizer's total penalty to more than $2.25 million.

Workers' rights organizations hailed the verdict, saying the outcome of the federal civil suit was a major milestone for biotech and nanotech workers.

"The fact that the largest drug company in the world has such contempt for the protection of their thousands of scientists is a stark warning that the present protective laws are not being enforced and need to be seriously strengthened," said Steve Zeltzer, chair of the California Coalition For Workers Memorial Day, a group that advocates for employees hurt on the job.

Pfizer continues to deny all of the suit's charges and said Thursday that the company is considering its legal options.

"We are disappointed with the verdict and do not believe the facts of this case warrant the conclusion reached by the jury," Pfizer said in an e-mailed statement.

"Pfizer is committed to protecting the health and safety of our colleagues and the communities in which we operate," the statement continued.

"In addition to our commitment to full compliance with environmental, health and safety laws and regulations, we have company-wide policies, standards, and programs combined with site-level management systems and initiatives tailored to the particular safety issues and needs at each location."

Pfizer previously said it had thoroughly investigated McClain's health and safety claims and found them to be untrue.

The suit, argued during a three-week trial before Bryant, has been followed by labor organizations, attorneys and members of the medical and research community because it is the first federal case involving a biotech worker who claims to have been harmed by a novel virus while on the job.

Workers' rights groups have criticized Bryant for throwing out McClain's major claim shortly before the trial began. The claim was that Pfizer engaged in willful and wanton misconduct in exposing her to a dangerous work environment that led to health problems, including bouts of temporary paralysis.

"The failure of the top company officials to even report to OSHA and other government agencies that many workers were getting sick numerous times in their laboratories ... is inexcusable," said Zeltzer, who called on state and federal authorities to open a criminal investigation into what he called a "cover-up" of health and safety violations at Pfizer.

McClain, a molecular biologist who first filed her suit about three years ago in New London Superior Court, had claimed that Pfizer violated whistleblower laws. A former member of the company's safety committee, McClain also charged that Pfizer violated her freedom of speech by terminating her after she pressed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

McClain, through her New Haven attorney Steve Fitzgerald, said in a statement that she hopes the verdict opens up a national discussion about the dangers of exposure to potentially life-threatening substances in the biotech workplace and the right of scientists and technicians to have a safe work environment.

"I was very pleased the jury found that Pfizer did retaliate against me for speaking about unsafe conditions at the Groton lab and for making a report to OSHA," McClain said. "I am disappointed, however, that I have not yet received exposure records from Pfizer" that could have identified the virus she was exposed to and provided an avenue for determining proper medical care.

Another of McClain's attorneys, Bruce E. Newman of Bristol, has called the case precedent-setting because there are few government standards regulating the bioengineering field. Worker-safety groups say OSHA regulations haven't kept up with fast-evolving technical occupations, saying the agency doesn't employ people with enough knowledge of safety problems in certain highly skilled fields.

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, according to her suit. Her supervisor also became ill, then 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," the suit said.

McClain said she asked for a transfer out of Lab B313 because of ongoing health concerns. Later, she discovered that a co-worker had been working next to her with "dangerous lentivirus material (similar to the AIDS virus) and embryonic stem cells on an open lab bench without biological containment."

McClain later went on medical leave, according to testimony, but continued to raise safety concerns until receiving a termination notice during her absence.

Backers of McClain have called for OSHA to reopen its investigation of the McClain case, a cause that may have received a boost from the six jurors whose verdict was read in court Thursday.

McClain's lawsuit claimed her continued exposure to genetically engineered viruses had led to a condition that triggers periodic paralysis, joint pain and fatigue. The attacks, which were particularly severe before the 52-year-old McClain started taking massive amounts of potassium, have dissipated in recent months, according to Mark McClain, the plaintiff's husband.

But McClain has said there is no known cure for the condition, adding that Pfizer, claiming protection under trademark laws, has refused to hand over records that might help her identify the virus that infected her.

l.howard@theday.com

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