Former worker who accused Jackson Lab of mistreating mice loses whistleblower lawsuit

Posted June 03, 2013, at 8:30 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — After deliberating for less than an hour Monday afternoon, a civil jury of seven men and two women sided with The Jackson Laboratory in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against the lab by a former employee.

Santina Caruso, who worked for Jackson Lab as a veterinary technician for several months in 2008, accused the lab of violating Maine’s Whistleblower Protection Act by firing her after she repeatedly raised concerns about how laboratory mice were being cared for while involved with disease research being conducted by Dr. Shaoguang Li.

Caruso, who had come to the lab after working for an eye research institute in Massachusetts, accused the lab of violating federal laws and regulations by allowing mice to suffer and then die in their cages instead of euthanizing them. On similar grounds, she objected to a process known as “toe-clipping” which, according to a complaint Caruso filed in June 2010 in Hancock County Superior Court, involves amputating toes of mice “for identification purposes.”

Laboratory officials denied firing Caruso over her allegations that research mice were not being treated humanely at the lab. They contended that Caruso’s confrontational demeanor and reluctance to follow the lab’s policies led to her dismissal in mid-June 2008.

Jackson Lab is known globally for its use of mice to research human disease and medical conditions. Each year it produces millions of specially bred laboratory mice that are used in similar studies all over the world. The lab employs more than 1,200 people in Bar Harbor and another 170 in Sacramento, Calif., and Farmington, Conn.

Caruso received authorization in March 2010 from the Maine Human Rights Commission to pursue a lawsuit against the lab, according to the court complaint. She sought unspecified compensation from the lab for lost wages caused by her firing, compensatory and punitive damages, and to cover her legal costs in pursuing the lawsuit.

“It’s very disappointing,” Caruso’s attorney, David Webbert of Augusta, said about the jury decision, which was 8-1 in favor of the lab. “I’m surprised.”

He said evidence presented to the jury during the civil trial showed the lab disregarded basic federal law and that lab officials fired his client for reporting those violations to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. OLAW is part of part of the National Institutes of Health, which routinely provides the lab with grants worth millions of dollars to fund its research.

Webbert said his client may appeal the decision but has not yet decided whether she will.

Jackson Lab’s attorney in the matter, Thad Zmistowski of Bangor, said the lab was pleased with Monday’s outcome.

“The lab is very gratified that its conduct in this case toward the plaintiff [Caruso] was vindicated by this jury,” Zmistowski said. “It endeavors with all its employees to act at all times with fairness and while it is not perfect — and no organization is — its efforts in this regard were rewarded by this jury.”

Chuck Hewett, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, issued a one-sentence statement Monday on the end of the civil trial, which began last Wednesday.

“We are happy the process worked,” Hewett said.

Caruso contended that the lab’s in-house animal care committee and the federal government require that research projects adhere to set protocols for when sick mice are to be euthanized. Allowing mice intentionally affected by disease to expire in their cages, rather than euthanizing them as they begin their final decline, violates federal law by causing unnecessary pain and distress in the lab animals, Caruso asserted.

According to Webbert, federal officials with OLAW who looked into his client’s concerns eventually agreed with her.

“We believe that the investigation was merited and contributed to animal welfare,” Bruce Morse, an animal welfare specialist with OLAW, informed Caruso in a letter written Dec. 5, 2008, almost six months after Caruso had been fired from the lab.

While Caruso was testifying on the stand Monday morning, Zmistowski accused Caruso of videotaping one sick mouse and then not telling her supervisors about the animal’s poor condition for another two days — which he contended added to the animal’s suffering. He contended that she had shot the video specifically to use as evidence in a lawsuit she planned to pursue against Jackson Lab.

“You manufactured that evidence and were very cruel in doing so, weren’t you?” Zmistowski asked.

“I did what I was instructed [by my supervisors],” Caruso responded. “I did not leave anything to suffer.”

Zmistowski contended that in raising her concerns, Caruso inappropriately went around her supervisors to lodge complaints, sent copious numbers of emails to her co-workers when some were sitting only a few feet away, and was disrespectful and made belittling comments to them. Her supervisors told her she needed to improve her teamwork and communication skills, he said.

“Just because you’re a whistleblower doesn’t mean you have automatic job security,” the lab attorney told the jury. “You don’t get a free pass to behave the way this person behaved.”

Webbert responded that, in any lab where routine violations of federal law may be considered part of the lab’s culture, teamwork and being agreeable may not be appropriate. He said that even if Caruso’s whistleblowing was only part of the reason she was dismissed, the lab still would have violated the Maine Whistleblowers’ Act.

“It’s very hard to be a charming whistleblower,” Webbert told the jury. “The defense about her attitude is insufficient.”

Webbert added that, when it comes to reporting substandard animal care, the lab’s own policies allow employees to raise those concerns high up in the lab’s hierarchy, not just with their immediate supervisors.

“I think they are looking to change the subject,” Webbert told the jury.

After the trial ended, Zmistowski said that all of the animal care concerns raised by Caruso in 2008 have since been addressed.

“With regard to historical animal welfare concerns at issue in this case, they were resolved long ago and the lab’s reputation in this area remains enviable,” Zmistowski said.

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