A lawsuit filed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York accuses a cleaning company worker of destroying over 20 years of research that would have potentially led to groundbreaking work.
The university said the custodian flipped the switch on a circuit breaker that supplied power to a key freezer containing cell cultures that were very temperature sensitive.
The lawsuit accuses Daigle Cleaning Systems in Albany, New York of not properly training the contract worker and breaching the educational and research institution's contract with the company.
It all happened in September 2020. In a deposition, as part of the lawsuit filed in upstate New York's Rensselaer County Supreme Court, the worker, Joseph Herrington, said that "annoying alarms" were coming from the freezer.
He claimed he believed that “important breakers” were not functioning properly and thought he was turning them on, but he claimed he mistakenly turned them off.
In the lawsuit, the university says a sign was placed on the freezer which read, "This freezer is beeping as it is under repair. Please do not move or unplug it. No cleaning required in this area."
That lead to questions of why there weren't better safety measures and fail-safes put in place to prevent such important work from being destroyed.
The project was being overseen by K.V. Lakshmi, a professor and director of Rensselaer’s Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research.
The Times Union of Albany reported that the university is asking for an unspecified amount in monetary damages from the cleaning company. CNN reported that the university wants the company to pay more than $1 million in damages and legal fees.
The freezer contained cell cultures and samples along with what was described as "other research elements," according to a court filing.
The contents were stored at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alarms were set to go off when the temperature in the freezer reached minus 108.4 degrees Fahrenheit and minus 115.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the Times Union reported.
The lawsuit said if temperatures went above or below that window the samples inside could be seriously damaged.
When the employee turned the switch to the off position, the freezer shut down, according to documents.
The sign on the freezer allegedly contained instructions on how to mute the sound, signaling that it was possibly a known frustration, for at least some in the building.
The sign said, according to reporting and court filings, "You can press the alarm/test mute button for 5-10 seconds if you would like to mute the sound."
It's not clear if the alarm was sounding because the temperature had already risen or fallen to a level that would have already damaged the samples before the janitor turned off the freezer completely.
Michael Ginsberg, an attorney for the university, said, "People’s behavior and negligence caused all this. Unfortunately, they wiped out 25 years of research."
The cleaning company had a $1.427 million contract with the university for the 2020 fall semester to clean facilities on campus, including the university's Cogswell Building, which is a research center that housed Prof. Lakshmi's lab.
The lawsuit states "a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable, demolishing more than 20 years of research."
It was unclear if Daigle Cleaning Systems would respond further to any of the allegations in the lawsuit outside of what is already public knowledge.
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