Whistleblower: Kelly Cole’s Lawsuit on the University of Pittsburgh

The social movement in which people are more ethically conscious of their actions has been greatly emphasized in recent years. Especially throughout the business world, corporations have implemented many codes of conduct for employees and managers to assess their actions and determine if their decisions are ethical

As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, I have taken many courses that teach the importance of ethical decision making and corporate social responsibility. Many benefits can be seen when organizations base their decisions on the ethical decision-making model, while companies that do not act ethically have drastic consequences. Such an example can be seen in many University scandals, such as the highly controversial legal investigation of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s creation of fraudulent classes to help student athletes maintain eligibility.

Given the fact that Pitt teaches their students on how to act ethically, the university experienced an ethical dilemma that dealt with their research department and is now faced with a lawsuit for wrongful termination. A former immunology professor and Regional Biocontainment Laboratory associate director, Kelly Stefano Cole, assisted with the work at the regional biocontainment laboratory. Kelly had reported the escape of an infected monkey in the lab back in 2016. She stated that the monkey was infected with a select agent and its whereabouts were unknown for several hours. Kelly thought this issue should be classified as an exposure incident following the definition of a select agent from the Centers for Disease Control, in which they state, “biological agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety, to animal and plant health, or to animal or plant products.”

Cole thought it was appropriate to report the matter as an exposure incident and contacted her superiors, Stitt-Fischer and Bill Yates, to report to the Environmental Health and Safety Department, as well as the National Institutes of Health. Both Stitt-Fischer and Bill Yates instructed Cole not to report. The university’s biological safety officer, Molly Stitt-Fischer, classified the escape of the monkey as an accident and not a safety violation

However, there were many instances that can be seen as questionable. When Cole reviewed the university’s official report on the incident of the infected monkey, she found that the information was inaccurate; the duration from when the monkey had escaped was recorded as much shorter than the actual several hours it had been unsupervised.

That same year, 2016,  Cole had also reported a purposefully contaminated animal: a rabbit, to have escaped for some length of time. Luckily, both the monkey and the rabbit did not escape from the research building and into the public campus.

After Cole had reported these incidents, the university and the staff had begun to treat her differently. She would receive official complaints on trivial infractions. While her colleagues acted in similar manners, they were not subjected to any rebukes like Cole. Cole’s privileges to the laboratory in its full capacity were later revoked, and eventually she was fully denied access to the premises and many university services.

Cole was eventually dismissed from her job. The lawsuit claims that the University of Pittsburgh violated the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law. The law is intended “to protect employees of both public and private organizations, and allow victims of retaliation to file a civil lawsuit to recover damages.” Cole is seeking compensation from lost wages and benefits, as well as harm to her reputation and humiliation. She filed in January 2018 in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The lawsuit is still being processed and we await to hear the verdict of the court.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems only right that Cole would report the incident. Thus, I was puzzled at the fact that the institution would punish Cole’s actions and dismiss her entirely. Had the infected monkey escaped the premise, many people, especially the research department, would most likely applaud Cole’s decision of reporting the incident. However, because there was no harm done to anyone, the head researchers wanted to pretend as though nothing had happened.

Most people would agree that it is always better to be safe than sorry. Learning about the ethical decision-making model in my managerial ethics class, Cole followed protocol and seemed to follow along with the steps to make a ethical decision in reporting the infected monkey with the accurate duration that it escaped. I hope to see that Cole will receive what she asks in the lawsuit against the university because the treatment she received from her colleagues seemed very unprofessional and just plain disrespectful. No one deserves to have their career and reputation smothered from an action one believed to be right.

Many of my friends are affiliated with the research department at the university. They told me that from the university’s point of view, the culture of research is to be as confidential as possible so as to not scare the public. They must make their work confidential and a form of secrecy is common in that line of research. Although this may be the culture, it still does not validate how the university treated Cole by ultimately terminating her position. It will be interesting to see the results of the lawsuit and witness if Kelly Cole will receive justice for her actions.

 

Sources:

1.http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/01/30/Pitt-kelly-stefano-cole-immunology-sues-lab-whistleblower-animals-escaped-infected/stories/201801300161

2. http://dailycaller.com/2018/01/30/escaped-infected-monkey-university-of-pittsburgh/

3. http://statelaws.findlaw.com/pennsylvania-law/pennsylvania-whistleblower-laws.html

4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/10/13/after-years-long-investigation-ncaa-finds-no-academic-violations-at-north-carolina/?utm_term=.a1dcea006238

 

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