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Researcher loses livestock, wins verdict

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered the University of Pennsylvania to pay $2.9 million to a professor for destroying a unique cancer-research project the man had spent 20 years developing.

The high court said it had “little difficulty” in concluding that officials of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine had worked an injustice on faculty member Jorge F. Ferrer, 71, whose research program collapsed when he was barred from it in 1991.

The 3-2 ruling, issued Dec. 31, upheld a 1998 Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury verdict in Ferrer’s favor. The Supreme Court, however, reduced the jury’s $5 million award, saying $2.9 million plus interest was the maximum justified by the evidence.

The state Superior Court earlier had vacated the jury’s verdict on the basis that Ferrer, who remains a faculty member at the veterinary school, had not suffered financial harm.

Ron Ozio, a spokesman for Penn, declined comment last week, saying university lawyers had not seen the Supreme Court ruling.

Thomas A. Sprague, an attorney for Ferrer, said the court’s ruling struck a blow for academic freedom.

“What happened here was nothing short of outrageous,” Sprague said. Ferrer “was one of the country’s leading scientists, and he had a cutting-edge research program until it was killed by the university.”

In a 36-page opinion, Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala said Ferrer, a physician and microbiologist, had been recruited to Penn from Stanford University in 1969 to study bovine leukemia. Ferrer’s goal was to develop a model for the study of leukemia in humans.

Over two decades, Zappala wrote, Ferrer obtained independent funding, built a research staff and developed a unique herd of cattle at the veterinary school’s New Bolton Center, a 600-acre farm in Kennett Square used for teaching and animal research.

In 1990, controversy arose when children visiting the New Bolton Center were permitted to handle lambs from Ferrer’s research program that had been inoculated with a leukemia virus.

The lambs, under research protocols, should have been restricted from contact with visitors.

A university committee investigated and concluded that the lapse was minor and that Ferrer was “not guilty” of misconduct.

Under the rules of the university, Zappala said in his opinion, the matter should have been dropped at that point and the dean and provost of the veterinary school should have made efforts to “repair any damages” to Ferrer’s reputation.

Instead, Edwin Andrews, then the dean of the veterinary school, barred Ferrer from continuing his studies for two years.

Andrews also sent a letter to the Kleberg Foundation, which funded Ferrer’s research, reporting that the professor had made “serious errors” in judgment.

As a result, Zappala wrote, Ferrer’s leukemia studies were halted, his funds dried up, his research staff disbanded and his carefully developed herd of cattle was sold.

“The effects of the sanctions,” the justice wrote, “were devastating.”