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Decades of research destroyed after cleaner turns off beeping lab freezer, lawsuit claims

A cleaner turned off a freezer at a university – resulting in decades of research being ruined, a multi-million dollar lawsuit has claimed.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has filed a lawsuit against a cleaning company, after an employee of the company tried to stop an “unpleasant beep” by turning off the freezer.

The lawsuit says the New York-based organization used Daigle Cleaning Systems Inc to clean its Cogswell Building lab between August 2000 and November 2020.

In-room freezers are set at -80C, with the lawsuit saying that even “small temperature fluctuations of 3 degrees will cause severe damage and many cultures and samples may be lost”.

Court papers say the research has the potential to be “groundbreaking” in chemical and biological work.

The freezer is thought to have been set to sound off if the temperature went up to -78C or down to -82C and that warning went off on September 14, 2020, although a professor and their team noticed the sample safe at -78C.

The freezer manufacturer has been called in to conduct emergency repairs, but COVID-19 restrictions mean the service cannot be performed until September 21.

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In the lawsuit, the establishment said the group took maximum protective measures against the freezer, including installing a safety lock box on the outlet and outlet, but on September 17, cleaners, Joseph Herrington, reportedly heard “annoying alarm bells,” his attorney told NBC News.

Mr Herrington is said to have been concerned that the breaker was off and tried to turn it back on.

“The action taken by Herrington was an error in his console reading,” according to an incident report cited in the lawsuit.

“He actually turned the switch from the ‘on’ position to the ‘off’ position around 8:30pm. At the end of the interview, he still couldn’t believe he did anything wrong and was just trying to help. “

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Research is ‘irretrievable’

The next day, staff noticed that the freezer was off and the temperature was at -32 degrees Celsius.

“Postgraduate research staff discovered that the freezer was switched off and the temperature had risen to the point of destruction of the research contained,” the complaint said, adding that “the majority of the specimens had been compromised.” breach, destroy and make destruction irretrievably over 20 years of research”.

Mr. Herrington is not the defendant named in the case, but the company he works for is.

The lawsuit said: “According to information and belief, Joe Herrington is a person with special needs.

“Notwithstanding this, defendant did not properly train Joe Herrington before, and in the meantime, Joe Herrington performed his duties as defendant’s employee.”

The company did not return a request for comment sought by NBC News, Sky’s partner network in the United States.

The work has been described by the professor’s team as “converting solar energy in photosynthetic systems; collecting and converting it into usable energy”.

Damage is believed to have reached more than 1 million USD.

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