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Roche denies claims it sacked employee for “whistle blowing”

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 18 May 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1175
  1. Madeleine Brettingham
  1. Bedford

    The pharmaceutical giant Roche this week accused a former senior manager of “jumping to conclusions” and “blowing the issues out of proportion.” The senior manager claims she was sacked for uncovering their dealings with a network of private slimming clinics.

    Dr Ryta Kuzel, aged 39, was criticised by her former employer at a Bedford Employment Tribunal hearing on Monday, after alleging she was marched from the premises in March 2005 as part of a cover-up over sales of their weight loss drug orlistat (Xenical).

    Dr Kuzel argued at an earlier hearing (BMJ 2006;332: 441) that Roche saw her as a potential “whistle blower,” after she discovered quantities of orlistat worth between £70 000 (€103 000; $132 000) and £80 000 a month were being sold to a private slimming clinic based in a converted corner shop in Derbyshire.

    Accusing Roche of ignoring longstanding doubts about the sale of drugs to a slimming clinic, which has since been investigated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Dr Kuzel claimed that she was sacked as head of UK regulatory affairs in a panicky attempt to protect the company's image.

    Refuting her claims, a representative for Roche, makers of mefloquine (Lariam), oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and the breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), portrayed Dr Kuzel as a concerted troublemaker, addicted to rowing with senior colleagues and unable to obey orders from above.

    “There was a breakdown in mutual trust… [Her manager] lost faith in the way she related to him and to others… He believed she had her own agenda,” the respondent argued. As for the so called whistle blowing, “she had little information.”

    Emphasising that the MHRA cleared Roche of any wrong doing in connection with the slimming clinics, the respondent rejected the notion that the firm was somehow “cavalier” in its approach to regulation. “Roche takes its regulatory obligations very seriously, and we have a good track record in doing so,” a company spokeswoman said.

    During her time at the company, Dr Kuzel also raised concerns about the alleged unlawful packaging of UK products and described arriving at the company in 2003 to find sensitive clinical trial data dumped in an unfurnished basement.

    “It included addresses and patients' details,” said the claimant's counsel, Ruth Downing. “This is information that only a limited number of people should have access to under strictly supervised conditions.”

    Describing the incident as “human error,” the respondent countered that Dr Kuzel's concerns about packaging, which they characterised as a regulatory grey area, were inflated and had been discussed extensively within the company.

    Although the firm have conceded that they were wrong to summarily dismiss Dr Kuzel, whose office was sealed off after she was escorted from the premises last year, the size of any payout will hinge on whether the panel accept her claim of whistle blowing.

    Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, employees sacked for exposing wrongdoing are eligible for much larger payouts than the £58 400 cap for victims of straightforward unfair dismissal, and awards can reach hundreds of thousands of pounds. A decision is due in August.

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    Dr Ryta Kuzel claimed that she was sacked in a panicky attempt to protect the company's image

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