Janitor accidentally destroys 20 years of research while cleaning lab, NY lawsuit says

Screengrab from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Facebook

A New York university has filed a $1 million lawsuit against a cleaning company after the school said a janitor in a lab accidentally destroyed more than 20 years of scientific research, according to a lawyer.

An employee of Daigle Cleaning Systems was cleaning a laboratory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy on Sept. 17, 2020, when he shut off a circuit breaker that provided electricity to a freezer, says the lawsuit, which was filed June 16.

The freezer was holding cell cultures and samples that needed to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius, or minus 112 Fahrenheit, according to the lawsuit. A fluctuation of 3 degrees could damage or destroy the samples, the lawsuit says.

On Sept. 14, 2020, an alarm was triggered because the temperature inside the freezer rose to minus 78 Celsius, according to the lawsuit. Researchers responded and determined that the samples hadn’t been harmed.

Repair workers could not respond to service the freezer until Sept. 21, 2020, according to the lawsuit, but in the meantime, the freezer’s alarm continued beeping.

Researchers at the lab took precautions to try to make sure no one tampered with the freezer while they waited for it be repaired, according to the lawsuit. They put a lock box over the freezer’s outlet and socket and posted a sign on the freezer door asking that it not be moved or unplugged, according to the lawsuit.

The janitor later said that while he was cleaning the lab on the night of Sept. 17, 2020, he heard “annoying alarms” and thought something was wrong, an incident report included in the lawsuit says. He went into an electrical box to make sure everything was okay and accidentally turned off “important breakers,” the lawsuit says.

This caused the freezer to shut off and the internal temperature to rise to minus 32 degrees Celsius, the lawsuit says.

The following day, researchers found that the majority of their specimens were “compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable,” the lawsuit says.

Daigle Cleaning Systems, which is based in Albany, did not respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News.

More than 20 years of research was lost, Michael Ginsberg, an attorney for the university told McClatchy News.

“(The researchers) were very troubled at the prospect of having lost so many years of valuable research,” he said.

The research, which was being led by Dr. K. V. Lakshmi, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, 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, Ginsberg said.

Recreating the research is an “astronomical undertaking” due to the cost, time and staffing levels required, he said.

Ginsberg said that while the janitor did not intentionally cause the destruction of the samples, he was not properly trained to work at the sensitive lab site.

The lawsuit accuses the cleaning company of negligence and not providing adequate training to employees even though it knew that the lab contained “highly specialized and delicate equipment, cell cultures and samples.”

The lawsuit is seeking damages of around $1 million to cover the cost of reproducing the research, Ginsberg said.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a private technological research university.

Troy is about 10 miles northeast of Albany.

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