Lawsuit: RPI Custodian Destroyed 20+ Years of Scientific Research

A cleaning company employee accidentally shut off power to a freezer that contained specimens for “groundbreaking” research in chemistry and chemical biology.

Lawsuit: RPI Custodian Destroyed 20+ Years of Scientific Research

Photo: Postmodern Studio, Adobe Stock

TROY, N.Y. — A New York technological research university is suing a cleaning company after one of its employees allegedly destroyed over 20 years of research.

The civil complaint, filed against Daigle Cleaning Systems by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on June 16, says its employee was cleaning its Cogswell Building lab on Sept. 17, 2020, when he shut off a circuit breaker that provided electricity to a freezer, reports The Miami Herald. According to court papers, the freezer was holding cell cultures and samples for research that had the potential to be “groundbreaking” in chemistry and chemical biology.

The freezer contents needed to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius and a fluctuation of three degrees could damage or destroy the samples, says the lawsuit. On Sept. 14, Professor Dr. K.V. Lakshmi and her team noticed an alarm was triggered after the temperature inside dropped to minus 78 degrees Celsius. Lakshmi, who was in charge of the research, contacted the freezer manufacturer for an emergency repair but the company said they could not carry out the service until Sept. 21 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The researchers determined the cultures hadn’t been harmed and would be safe until the freezer could be serviced. They took several precautions to protect the research, including placing a lock box over the freezer’s outlet and socket and posting a sign on the freezer door in all caps that said, “THIS FREEZER IS BEEPING AS IT IS UNDER REPAIR. PLEASE DO NOT MOVE OR UNPLUG IT. NO CLEANING REQUIRED IN THIS AREA. YOU CAN PRESS THE ALARM/TEST MUTE BUTTON FOR 5-10 SECONDS IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO MUTE THE SOUND.”

According to the lawsuit, the custodian was cleaning the lab on the night of Sept. 17 when he heard the “annoying alarms.” He allegedly became concerned that important breakers were turned off and tried to turn them back on, Sky News reports.

“The action taken by Herrington was an error in his reading of the panel,” according to an incident report cited in the lawsuit. “He actually moved the breakers from the ‘on’ position to the ‘off’ position at or about 8:30 pm.”

The next day, researchers found that the majority of their specimens were “compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable” as the temperature inside the freezer had risen to minus 32 degrees Celsius.

The lawsuit says while the custodian did not intentionally cause the destruction of the samples, he was not properly trained to work at the sensitive lab site. The lawsuit says he is “a person with special needs” and is not a named defendant in the case.

“The cleaning company failed to train the person who they assigned to do this work,” Michael Ginsberg, an attorney for RPI, told NBC News. “Regardless of the individual’s capacity, without proper training, anyone could do that.”

Ginsberg said the research involved the study of photosynthetic reactions in cell cultures at extremely low temperatures and was aimed at improving the conversion of solar energy to usable energy. Recreating the research is an “astronomical undertaking” due to the cost, time, and staffing levels required, he added.

The university is seeking around $1 million in legal fees and damages to cover the cost of reproducing the research.

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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