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Penn Appealing $5 Million Verdict

THE University is appealing a recent verdict by a Philadelphia Common Pleas jury that ordered it to pay $5 million to Dr. Jorge Ferrer, professor and medical doctor of microbiology and clinical studies at the School of Veterinary Medicine, for violating his employment contract. Ferrer sued the University after he was disciplined for alleged negligence in a 1990 incident wherein a number of people, some schoolchildren, were inadvertently exposed to a flock of lambs that had been injected with HTLV-1, a cancer-causing virus similar to HIV. (None of the people exposed became infected.) Although the lambs were tagged to show that they were being used in a medical experiment, Ferrer claimed it was another Penn scientist in charge of the flock that allowed eight veterinary students to perform operations that exposed them to the animals' blood, and also allowed the schoolchildren and adults to pet the flock -- all without Ferrer's knowledge.
   The jury also found that three Penn administrators -- Dr. Michael Aiken, then provost and now chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Dr. Edwin Andrews, then dean of the Vet School; and Dr. Barry Cooperman, professor of chemistry and then vice provost for research -- had conspired against Ferrer in disciplining him after a faculty investigative committee, appointed by Andrews, found no evidence of misconduct in research as defined under University policy. (The committee did fault him for lapses of judgment and poor communication and for deviating from research protocol requiring him to isolate the lambs. He was required to attend a course on hazardous materials. Ferrer also expressed "deep regrets" for not isolating the lambs.)
   Although Ferrer continued to receive his salary, he was forbidden to conduct or supervise research on human pathogens for 17 months, which, he contended, effectively shut down his laboratory, and "tarnished" his reputation. When he appealed the decision to the Faculty Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, the committee twice, with two different groups of members, concluded that the sanctions had been unjustified and recommended that they be rescinded.
   "We're very disappointed in the verdict," said Kenneth Wildes, Penn's director of communications. "We believe it was incorrect, not supported by the evidence, and we will appeal."
   
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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/3/99