Former Pfizer research scientist awarded $1.37 million in whistle blower suit

A federal jury awarded a former Pfizer research scientist $1.37 million in damages after she was fired for claiming publicly  that she was sickened by a genetically engineered virus while working for the company. The decision rested not on whether the scientist was actually sickened by the virus but on the evidence that Pfizer had violated her free speech rights. -db

The New York Times
April 2, 2010
By Andrew Pollack and Duff Wilson

A federal jury has awarded $1.37 million in damages to a former Pfizer scientist who claimed she was sickened by a genetically engineered virus at a company laboratory and then fired for raising safety concerns.

The case, which was decided Thursday, has raised questions about the safety of workers in the biotechnology industry and about regulations to protect them. The new head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said on Friday that the agency was moving to improve regulation of biological materials.

The jury in the United States District Court in Hartford did not actually address whether the virus had caused the paralyzing illness from which the scientist, Becky McClain, still suffers. The judge had dismissed that claim before the trial, saying that Ms. McClain did not have adequate evidence and that it was a matter for worker’s compensation.

But the jury ruled that Pfizer had violated laws protecting free speech and whistle-blowers by retaliating against Ms. McClain, who worked for the company from 1996 through 2005.

The case has attracted the attention of some worker advocates, who say it shows the risks workers in biological labs encounter and the lack of rules to protect them. Ms. McClain, for example, claimed she encountered many difficulties in her attempts to learn the genetic content of the virus she suspected had infected her because it was protected as a trade secret.

“It’s a field that has been trade-secreted out of the sunlight,” Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, said Friday. Mr. Nader, who has taken an interest in the case, said he had spoken to Ms. McClain three times by phone. Ms. McClain, a molecular biologist at Pfizer’s laboratory in Groton, Conn., had complained about what she saw as safety problems, including desks next to where biological experiments were done.

She now suffers from a potassium deficiency that causes sporadic and temporary paralysis, which she says she believes was caused by a genetically engineered virus being used by a co-worker.

A Pfizer spokeswoman said Friday that the company was disappointed in the verdict and was considering options for motions to reverse it. The spokeswoman, Elizabeth Power, said in an e-mail message that Ms. McClain had been fired for not returning to work for 11 months, not because of her safety complaints.

“We 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,” she said.

She said OSHA had also looked into Ms. McClain’s claims and had found her workplace safe.

Stephen J. Fitzgerald, one of Ms. McClain’s lawyers, said he had advised her not to speak to reporters because the case was continuing. Punitive damages have yet to be awarded. And Pfizer is expected to ask the judge to overturn the jury award.

Jeremy Gruber, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, an advocacy group urging discussion of the ethical implications of biotechnology, applauded the award.

“I personally believe that Becky McClain is really the canary in the coal mine,” he said. Regulations “have not kept pace with the explosion of research.”

David Michaels, who became head of OSHA in December, said he was only learning about Ms. McClain’s case. But he conceded Friday that there were “many gaps” in his agency’s standards.

“New biological materials, nanomaterials, there are many things where we don’t have adequate information, and we think workers need to have protection,” he said. But he said the Obama administration was planning a new approach of having employers do more to fix their problems, and expanding rules, for example to cover more infectious agents.

Copyright 2010 the New York Times Company