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Major research lost after custodian flips switch on lab freezer, lawsuit claims

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute alleges it lost decades of scientific work because worker sought to stop "annoying alarms" coming from lab that contained super-cold freezer.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteHang Yu / Getty Images

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute filed a million-dollar lawsuit against a cleaning company after a custodian, seeking to stop an "annoying" beep, allegedly turned off a lab freezer and killed decades of "groundbreaking" research.

The school in Troy, New York, had contracted with Daigle Cleaning Systems Inc. to clean the Cogswell Building lab between Aug. 17, 2000, and Nov. 27, 2020, according to a civil complaint filed this month in Rensselaer County.

A lab freezer was set at -80 degrees Celsius, and even a “small temperature fluctuation of three (3) degrees would cause catastrophic damage and many cell cultures and samples could be lost,” according to the lawsuit.

“The research had the potential to be groundbreaking,” the school's attorney wrote about the work of chemistry and chemical biology professor K.V. Lakshmi.

The freezer was allegedly set to sound if its temperature went up to -78 or down to -82. That alert went off Sept. 14, 2020, though Lakshmi and her team found cell samples to be safe at -78.

The freezer's manufacturer was called for emergency service, but Covid-19 restrictions meant no one could get there until Sept. 21, the lawsuit stated.

Lakshmi's team employed maximum protections including installing a safety lock box on the freezer’s outlet and socket, the school said in its litigation.

But on Sept. 17, cleaning employee Joseph Herrington reported hearing "annoying alarms" coming from that freezer, plaintiff's attorney Michael Ginsberg told NBC News on Monday.

Herrington allegedly feared the breakers were off and he acted to turn them on.

"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 p.m. At the end of the interview, he still did not appear to believe he had done anything wrong but was just trying to help."

When research staff showed up the next day, they were stunned to find the freezer off and temperature up to catastrophically high -32, according to the lawsuit.

“The Graduate Research Staff discovered that the Freezer was off and that the temperature had risen to the point of destruction of the contained research," the complaint said, adding that "a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed, and rendered unsalvageable demolishing more than twenty (20) years of research."

Herrington was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, only his employer at the time, Daigle Cleaning Systems.

"Upon information and belief, Joe Herrington is a person with special needs," the lawsuit said. "Despite such knowledge, Defendant failed to properly train Joe Herrington before, and while, Joe Herrington performed his duties as Defendant's employee."

Herrington and the company did not immediately return messages on Monday, seeking their comments.

Ginsberg said the school isn't blaming Herrington but his employer for allegedly not properly training him.

"The cleaning company failed to train the person who they assigned to do this work," Ginsberg said Monday. "Regardless of the individual's capacity, without proper, training anyone could do that."

The lawsuit called Lakshmi 's work as "groundbreaking" and Ginsberg characterized it as: "Solar energy conversion in photosynthesis systems; capturing and converting it to useable energy."

Lakshmi and a school representative could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday.

The lawsuit did not ask for a specific amount in damages but said the value lost was worth more than $1 million.