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Pfizer's, scientist's lawyers duel over safety standards

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Hartford - A jury in the first federal civil trial involving a biotech worker who claims to have been injured on the job spent about two hours in deliberations Wednesday at U.S. District Court before retiring for the day without reaching a verdict.

Earlier in the day, attorneys for Pfizer and former company scientist Becky McClain of Deep River clashed over the importance of the pharmaceutical giant's decision to vent possibly contaminated air into the atmosphere near its Groton research center.

Pfizer's attorney, William Anthony, told jurors during closing arguments in the three-week trial that filters used in conjunction with the venting had eliminated nearly all the impurities that caused a noxious odor - an odor that, according to testimony, became noticeable shortly before several people in the lab fell sick. He added that references to the incident from McClain's attorneys amounted to a "shameless attempt to incite you."

But McClain's attorney, Steve Fitzgerald, argued in a rebuttal that the decision to vent the air - which backers of McClain claim could have contained a dangerous experimental virus - "speaks to Pfizer's approach to safety issues." He said "there's a corporate culture at Pfizer" that "we decide what's safe … (and) the measure of what's safe is what's legal."

McClain, who has claimed she was infected by a dangerous virus while working at Lab B313 on Pfizer's Groton campus, said in her federal suit that the company retaliated against her for filing safety complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She is also maintaining that her free-speech rights were violated because she was fired after raising safety concerns about the lab layout in Groton, in which desks where scientists type and benches as which they conduct experiments are side by side.

But Anthony said Pfizer did not retaliate against McClain. Instead, he argued, Pfizer executives thanked McClain for her safety complaints and eventually offered her a transfer to another lab - an offer McClain's attorneys have denied ever happened.

Anthony said Pfizer begged McClain to come back to work but she refused.

"Pfizer didn't abandon her," he said. "Ms. McClain didn't want to come back."

Fitzgerald, however, said McClain's employment came to an effective end after she filed an OSHA complaint in January 2005. He charged that her supervisor earlier had threatened to falsify McClain's annual review and that her subsequent poor appraisal rating demonstrated Pfizer management had conspired against her.

McClain's claims for lost wages and benefits total more than $2 million, but the jury could add to the total if it decides to award punitive damages as well.

The case Becky McClain v. Pfizer Inc. has been closely watched by workers' rights organizations as well as the legal community. They see the case as a test for whether safety complaints against biotech firms can be successfully argued when the connection between tiny biological organisms and employee injuries are so difficult to pinpoint.

McClain's case was made particularly cumbersome, according to workers' rights groups, when Judge Bryant at the last minute threw out the most central charge - that Pfizer had shown wanton and reckless disregard for McClain's safety by exposing her to an experimental virus that caused serious health problems and prevented her from working.

l.howard@theday.com

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