Watch CBSN Live

Pfizer Cares About Safety, But Only "Informally," Email Says

Becky McClain's $1.4 million legal victory against Pfizer (PFE) is a surprise because on its face the former research scientist's complaint against the company didn't feature the kind of smoking-gun allegations that often make whistleblower cases against pharmaceutical companies fly.

One of the key emails in the case -- obtained by BNET -- is ambiguous at worst and, at best, seems to show Pfizer executives working methodically (albeit slowly) to improve safety at the company.

Drug companies should thus be warned that claims by disgruntled scientists may be taken more seriously by juries than they are by judges or the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, both of whom expressed skepticism about McClain's suit before it got to trial.

A Connecticut federal-court jury decided in McClain's favor after hearing her allegations that there was little separation between the lab benches where scientists worked with viruses and their lunchroom; that a malfunctioning fume hood sickened workers in the lab; and that when the hood was identified as faulty it was dumped outside Pfizer's Groton, Conn., lab even though it had been in a building where research was done on viruses.

McCain claims she was sickened by something she contracted in the lab, but a judge threw out that part of her lawsuit before the trial began, ruling that she could not prove a link between her sickness and Pfizer. OSHA also denied her complaint against her former employer, and she was unable to get copies of Pfizer's "exposure records" in relation to the virus she believes infected her.

Pfizer said:

Pfizer did not terminate Ms. McClain's employment to retaliate against her for making any safety complaints or for exercising her right to free speech. Pfizer terminated Ms. McClain's employment because she refused to return to work for a period of 11 months, despite numerous and repeated efforts by Pfizer to secure her return to the workplace.
(Read Pfizer's statement in full here.) McClain, however, prevailed on the claim that she was fired for complaining about safety at the lab. An email used in the case shows McClain asking her colleagues to help her draft a latter to management regarding safety and the design of their lab. She noted:
1) drinking water sources not being easily accessible without interrupting work 2) no conveniently located office space and computer facilities close to the department are available if one deems to do office work outside the laboratory 3) no adequate or safe place in close proximity to the department to eat lunch. 4) the safety issue of having open office spaces in laboratories that work with blood products, ethidium bromide, biological agents and chemicals, isotopes and other potentially hazardous agents.
McClain testified that the reply from Mary Saltarelli, chair of Pfizer's safety committee, indicated she should stop raising safety issues with the company safety committee. But as you can see from the reply itself, it merely suggests McClain continue to raise the issues "informally" but "wait" before actually sending the email to management:

Bottom line: When your own scientists complain about safety, assuming that there's no liability just because their emails are ambiguous no longer cuts it.