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Injured Pfizer Molecular Biologist And Whistleblower Becky McClain Beats Pfizer After Six
Injured Pfizer biotech molecular biologist Becky McClain who was injured and retaliated against by Pfizer for speaking out about health and safety problems won her case after 6 years and a Federal Judge who had a conflict of interest.
Injured Pfizer Molecular Biologist And Whistleblower Becky McClain Beats Pfizer After Six Year Struggle
Appeals court backs scientist in Pfizer retaliation case
By Lee Howard
Published 12/14/2012 12:00 AMUpdated 12/14/2012 07:01 PM
Pfizer Inc. whistleblower Becky McClain’s legal battle to draw public attention to worker-safety issues came to an end Friday as an appeals court refused to overturn a $2.3 million verdict in favor of the former Groton-based scientist.
Pfizer said it is “evaluating its options” on whether to appeal the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court. But McClain’s attorneys said no constitutional claim was associated with the case.
“Justice prevailed,” said attorney Bruce E. Newman, who represented McClain along with attorney Stephen J. Fitzgerald.
“We disagree with the court’s conclusion but respect its decision,” Pfizer said in a statement.
McClain, according to a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, proved her claims that Pfizer “acted willfully, maliciously, or with reckless indifference” concerning allegations that her free-speech rights had been violated and she had faced retaliation for raising safety concerns.
One of McClain’s main concerns — that Pfizer had exposed her to an unsafe laboratory in Groton, leading to an illness from a novel virus that left her dangerously ill — never got a hearing in the courts. And McClain said she is unsure whether her message about needing to shore up regulations regarding the nation’s largely unregulated biotech labs is getting through, but she is glad to have the financial security to pursue better medical care.
“We’re happy,” McClain said in a phone interview. “But whistleblowers need swifter, quicker protections. Ten years is a long time to make it through something like this.”
McClain became ill in 2004, was fired by Pfizer in 2005 and filed her lawsuit the following year. In March 2010, an eight-person jury at U.S. District Court in Hartford decided that Pfizer should pay McClain $1.37 million, an amount that was increased by Judge Warren W. Eginton when he added in attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.
The New York-based court panel, which included retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, heard Pfizer’s appeal in October. McClain’s attorneys plan to file an additional claim against Pfizer to cover interest charges on the initial court award.
Pfizer claimed that the former Deep River resident, now living in Albuquerque, N.M., was fired after abandoning her job.
“Pfizer holds the health and safety of its colleagues and contractors among its highest priorities thereby reaffirming the earlier federal court decision that Ms. McClain’s allegations of work safety issues were completely without merit,” Pfizer said in its statement.
Pfizer referred to a judge’s decision to disallow a legal claim related to McClain’s concerns about being exposed to a dangerous virus. The judge who made the decision later disqualified herself from pursuing the case because of a conflict of interest.
McClain, a longtime molecular biologist at Pfizer’s Groton laboratories, claimed that Pfizer refused to hand over records showing the type of virus to which she was exposed. Pfizer said McClain was never exposed to a hazard, and therefore there were no records to hand over.
McClain filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigated the claim but could not substantiate the safety problems. McClain said OSHA didn’t have the staff expertise to determine hazards on a molecular level. McClain was subsequently fired after taking a leave from work to fight her illness, which caused periodic paralysis, she said.
McClain said she still doesn’t understand why Pfizer didn’t address her safety concerns instead of trying to sweep them under the rug. She said her actions could have saved Pfizer money in the long run, in addition to protecting the public health and safety.
“Why would you retaliate against someone like that?” she said.
McClain, who has become a spokesman for worker safety groups nationwide, said she feels businesses such as Pfizer are becoming too influential in the academic community. The result, she said, is that academics are feeling constrained in speaking out about matters that might put lucrative partnerships with industry at risk.
Newman, McClain’s attorney, added that the case highlighted the work that still needs to be done nationwide to ensure that workers and the public are protected from biological hazards at laboratories.
“That is still an area that needs to be addressed by OSHA,” he said.
l.howard [at] theday.com
Bruce E. Newman
Brown, Paindiris & Scott, LLP
747 Stafford Avenue
Bristol, CT 06010
STEPHEN J. FITZGERALD
Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Richardson, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C.
405 Orange Street
New Haven, CT 06511
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE… December 13, 2012
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, located in New York, NY, issued an opinion this morning affirming a $2.295 million jury verdict for Becky McClain in her workplace safety lawsuit against her former employer, Pfizer Inc.
Originally filed in 2006, Ms. McClain’s lawsuit claimed that Pfizer terminated her employment as a molecular biologist after she expressed concerns about safety at Pfizer’s Groton, CT facility. After hearing eight days of testimony at the March 2010 trial, an eight-person federal jury in Hartford unanimously awarded Ms. McClain $1.37 million in damages. Senior Judge Warren W. Eginton later awarded Ms. McClain an additional $456,667 in attorney’s fees and $468,843 in punitive damages in June of 2011.
Pfizer appealed to the Second Circuit, arguing that Ms. McClain could not recover damages because she had abandoned her job and that Pfizer’s conduct did not warrant punitive damages. The court heard oral argument in New York City on October 25, 2012.
Today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court. It held, first, that Ms. McClain “presented sufficient evidence at trial of each element” of her claims; and second, that Ms. McClain “presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Pfizer acted willfully, maliciously, or with reckless indifference.”
The three-judge panel in the case included the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, Associate Justice (retired), of the United States Supreme Court, along with Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs and Circuit Judge John M. Walker, Jr., of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The panel’s non-precedential opinion in the case, No. 11-3002-cv, McClain v. Pfizer Inc., is available at the Second Circuit’s website: http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions.
Ms. McClain was represented by Bruce E. Newman, Esq., of Brown, Paindiris & Scott, LLP, and Stephen J. Fitzgerald, Esq., of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Richardson, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C.
For additional information, please contact Ms. McClain’s attorneys: Stephen J. Fitzgerald, Esq., at 203.777.4425; or Bruce E. Newman, Esq., at 860.589.4417.