A college janitor turned off a freezer in a lab to silence 'annoying alarms,' but destroyed $1 million in scientific research in the process, a lawsuit claims

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
A janitor accidentally destroyed $1 million of scientific research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.Hang Yu/Getty
  • A janitor destroyed $1 million in scientific research after turning off a super cold freezer in a lab.

  • He had heard "annoying alarms" coming from the freezer where over 20 years of research were stored.

  • The laboratory's university is now suing the cleaning company that contracted the janitor.

A university janitor accidentally turned off a super cold laboratory freezer after repeated "annoying alarms," resulting in the destruction of $1 million worth of scientific research, according to a lawsuit filed in the New York.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in Troy, New York, is suing Daigle Cleaning Systems after one of its contracted workers wiped out over 20 years of research, according to the suit, which was filed in Rensselaer County Supreme Court.

Joseph Harrington, an employee of Daigle, was contracted to clean at RPI's Cogwell Building from August 2020 through to November 2020 where a laboratory was located.

A professor of the university Dr. K.V. Lakshmi conducted high-level research inside the lab that "had the potential to be groundbreaking" and funded by the university, the lawsuit said.

The laboratory contained a freezer which housed numerous cell cultures and samples that had to be stored at a temperature of -112 degrees fahrenheit — a fluctuation of just three degrees could cause "catastrophic damage."

If the freezer's temperature rose to -108 degrees or dropped to -115.6 degrees, an alarm was set to go off.

This is exactly what happened on September 14, 2020 when the alarm went off because the temperature had risen to -108.4 degrees, but Professor Lakshmi determined that the research was still unharmed.

She contacted the freezer manufacturer to schedule emergency services but due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, it could not be serviced until September 2022.

As a result of the consistent alarm and to prevent anyone from unplugging the freezer, a notice was placed on its door saying: "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."

However, when Harrington was cleaning near the lab on September 17th, he heard the "annoying alarms," according to his account of the events told to the university.

In an effort to be helpful, he ended up switching off the circuit breakers — which provides vital electricity to the freezer — believing that he was switching them back on in an "error in his reading of the panel."

Professor Lakshmi's students found the freezer switched off the next day with the temperature having risen and despite efforts to preserve the research "a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed, and rendered unsalvageable demolishing more than twenty years of research," the lawsuit states.

It's believed that Harrington destroyed $1 million worth of scientific research and RPI will be seeking damages close to that amount but it hasn't arrived at a figure yet, Michael E. Ginsberg, a lawyer for RPI told Insider.

"We don't believe that there was any malicious intent that this was done intentionally or that there was any type of sabotage," Ginsberg said. "This was a result of human error and although there are allegations of breach of contract and a few different theories of negligence, the real issue here, the core of the allegation is that the cleaning company failed to train and supervise their employee."

Harrington maintains that he thought he was doing the right thing, according to the lawsuit.

Daigle Cleaning Systems did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment about the lawsuit.

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