A cleaner turned off a freezer at a university – leading to decades of research to be ruined, a million-dollar lawsuit has claimed.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute filed the lawsuit against a cleaning company, after one of its employees tried to stop an “annoying beep” by turning off the freezer.
The New York-based institution used Daigle Cleaning Systems Inc to clean its Cogswell Building lab between August 2000 and November 2020, the lawsuit says.
The freezer in the room was set at -80C, with the lawsuit saying even a “small temperature fluctuation of three degrees would cause catastrophic damage and many cell cultures and samples could be lost”.
The court papers said the research had the potential to be “groundbreaking” in the work of chemistry and chemical biology.
It is alleged the freezer was set to sound off if it went up to -78C or down to -82C, and that alert went off on 14 September 2020, though a professor and their team found the samples to be safe at -78C.
The freezer’s manufacturer was called to carry about emergency repairs, but COVID-19 restrictions meant the service could not be carried out until 21 September.
In litigation, the facility said the team carried out maximum protections on the freezer, including installing a safety lock box on its outlet and socket, but on 17 September, the cleaner, Joseph Herrington, reported hearing “annoying alarms”, his lawyer told NBC News.
Mr Herrington allegedly became concerned the breakers were off and tried to turn them back 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 8.30pm. At the end of the interview, he still did not appear to believe he had done anything wrong but was just trying to help.”
Research was ‘unsalvageable’
The next day, staff found the freezer off and the temperature at -32C.
“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 20 years of research”.
Mr Herrington is not a named defendant in the case, but the company he works for is.
The lawsuit said: “Upon information and belief, Joe Herrington is a person with special needs.
“Despite such knowledge, defendant failed to properly train Joe Herrington before, and while, Joe Herrington performed his duties as defendant’s employee.”
The company did not return a request for comment sought by NBC News, Sky’s US partner network.
The work was described by the professor’s team as “solar energy conversion in photosynthesis systems; capturing and converting it to useable energy”.
Damages are believed to amount to more than $1 million.