San Diego Utility Sues Lab, Alleges Faulty Drug Test

Times Staff Writer

Claiming its reputation has been sullied, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has sued a La Jolla laboratory for performing an allegedly faulty drug test in 1986 that led to the firing of an employee who later won reinstatement and a financial settlement from the utility.

The suit, filed Thursday in San Diego County Superior Court, claims that National Health Laboratories had contracted with SDG&E; to conduct urinalysis of employees and prospective employees. The suit alleges that the lab led SDG&E; to believe that a urine sample taken from Collette Clark in May, 1986, tested positive for marijuana use.

Clark, who was a temporary employee at the time, was promptly fired.

Firing Contested

The woman, who insisted that she had not been smoking the drug, contested her firing. The suit says that, a month later, lab officials told SDG&E; that a second test of the same sample had confirmed marijuana use by Clark.

"But information obtained from NHL employees indicated that there was never a second test given," SDG&E; lawyer Larry Davis said.

In June, 1986, when lab officials said the second test confirmed marijuana use, SDG&E; asked the laboratory to conduct another test. Laboratory officials said, however, there was not enough of the sample left to perform another test, according to the lawsuit. In July, SDG&E; asked to see the remaining sample, but lab officials said it had been discarded, the suit claims.

"SDG&E; is informed and believes . . . the statement of NHL . . . that the Clark sample (was not sufficient) was false and was made with the knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or not," the suit says.

Furthermore, the suit alleges, the laboratory violated a contractual agreement to retain the urine samples for 13 months.

Dave Flaugh, vice president of the lab, said he was surprised by the suit but declined comment because company officials have not seen it.

Clark sued SDG&E; in September. At the time of her dismissal, Clark had worked as a clerk at the utility for 17 months after gaining the job through a temporary agency. She applied for a higher-paying position in May, 1986--when she underwent the drug test--through another temporary agency.

Wins Reinstatement

In November, Clark and SDG&E; officials reached a settlement, and she was reinstated. The settlement included a letter of apology from SDG&E; and an undisclosed monetary award to Clark.

"SDG&E;'s corporate identity and reputation has been injured in the community, through no fault of its own," the suit claims.

The suit asks for $500,000 in punitive damages and unspecified general damages.

SDG&E; no longer contracts with the laboratory, Davis said, adding that all urinalyses for the utility are performed by American Clinical Laboratories.

The suit underlines concerns voiced in the scientific community about quality of work done by laboratories in the drug-testing business, which has expanded greatly in recent years as increasing numbers of companies screen employees and applicants for illegal drug use.

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