San Francisco

In the first class-action suit claiming discrimination and invasion of privacy related to genetic and other medical testing, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has reached a provisional $2.2 million settlement with a group of employees. But the laboratory continues to deny any wrong-doing.

Seven former and current employees filed the suit in 1995, arguing that, by testing its workers for pregnancy, sickle-cell trait and syphilis in occupational medical examinations without their knowledge, the US Department of Energy (DoE) laboratory was guilty of sexual and racial discrimination and invasion of privacy. The employees said the tests were especially harmful because they dealt with intimate matters, including genetic information.

In June 1996, the US District Court for the Northern District of California granted a petition by the laboratory to have the case dismissed. But that decision was reversed in 1998 by the US Court of Appeals (see Nature 393, 611; 1998).

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who wrote the opinion, noted that “the conditions tested for were aspects of one's health in which one enjoys the highest expectations of privacy”. He pointed out, for example, that a test for sickle-cell trait — one copy of the recessive gene for sickle-cell anaemia — could reveal information about family history and reproductive decision-making.

By providing genetic data, the test could disclose paternity, as well as the potential health of future generations. The laboratory said the tests were part of routine and comprehensive medical screening to which the employees had consented, and that they were consistent with good medical practice.

Lawrence Berkeley laboratory has agreed to settle the case, while still denying any damage to its employees. After about 18 months of mediation, the laboratory said it would pay the seven named plaintiffs $25,000 each.

The deal set aside another $100,000 for ten other early claimants and $440,000 to pay the plaintiffs' legal costs. Awards of up to $2,000 each would then go to other employees who came forward and said that they were also tested, depending on the tests performed.

Notices went out last week detailing the agreement to former and current employees. The court said that potential class members included all full- or part-time workers at the laboratory from January 1981 to April 1993.

The group also includes women employees between March 1972 and December 1994, who were probably tested for pregnancy, and African Americans who worked there from March 1972 to June 1995, who were likely to have been checked for sickle-cell trait.

No one involved in the case will comment on whether such testing was carried out at other DoE laboratories. The litigants have agreed not to discuss the case publicly until the court decides in July whether to approve the settlement.