Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute filed a million-dollar lawsuit against a cleaning company after a custodian, seeking to stop a «nuisance» beeping, allegedly turned off a lab freezer, ending decades of «groundbreaking» research.
The school in Troy, New York, had contracted with Daigle Cleaning Systems Inc. to clean the cogswell building laboratory between August 17, 2000 and November 27, 2020, according to a civil complaint filed this month in Rensselaer County.
A laboratory freezer was set to -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 of the chemistry and chemical biology work. Professor KV Lakshmi.
Supposedly the freezer was set to sound if its temperature went up to -78 or went down to -82. That alert went off on September 14, 2020, although Lakshmi and his team found safe cell samples at -78.
The freezer’s manufacturer was called for emergency service, but Covid-19 restrictions meant no one could get there until September 21, according to the lawsuit.
Lakshmi’s team employed maximum safeguards, including installing an electrical outlet lock box and freezer plug, the school said in its litigation.
But on Sept. 17, janitor Joseph Herrington reported hearing «nuisance alarms» coming from that freezer, the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael Ginsberg, told NBC News Monday.
Herrington allegedly feared the switches were off and 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 switches from the ‘on’ position to the ‘off’ position around 8:30 p.m. At the end of the interview, he still didn’t seem to believe he had done anything wrong, but was just trying to help. «. .»
When investigative staff showed up the next day, they were shocked to find that the freezer was turned off and the temperature had risen catastrophically to -32, according to the lawsuit.
“Postgraduate research staff discovered that the freezer was turned off and the temperature had risen to the point of destroying the research contained,” the complaint states, adding that “the majority of the specimens were compromised, destroyed, and returned insurmountable by 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.
«Based on information and belief, Joe Herrington is a person with special needs,» the lawsuit says. «Despite such knowledge, Defendant failed to properly train Joe Herrington prior to and while Joe Herrington was performing his duties as an employee of Defendant.»
Herrington and the company did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.
Ginsberg said the school does not blame Herrington but rather his employer for allegedly failing to properly train him.
«The cleaning company did not train the person they assigned to do this job,» Ginsberg said Monday. «Regardless of the individual’s ability, without the proper training, anyone could do that.»
The lawsuit called Lakshmi’s work «innovative» and Ginsberg characterized it as: «Conversion of solar energy into photosynthesis systems; capturing it and converting it into usable energy.»
Lakshmi and a representative for the school could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
The lawsuit did not ask for a specific amount in damages, but said the lost value was worth more than $1 million.