Attorneys for Rensselaer Polytechnic University have said that, while the janitor simply made a mistake, their employer negligently failed to ensure that workers understood how to clean and sanitize sensitive research laboratories.
A New York-based university has filed a $1 million lawsuit against a janitorial services company, claiming that one of its employees accidentally destroyed decades’ worth of scientific research.
According to The Miami Herald, a Daigle Cleaning Systems employee was working in a laboratory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, when he switched off a circuit breaker providing electricity to a freezer.
The freezer, writes the Herald, was being used to store cell cultures and samples, all of which needed to be kept at temperatures below -112 degrees Fahrenheit.
Any significant temperature fluctuation—even as slight as 3 degrees—could have damaged or destroyed the cultures.
Attorneys for the university say that the laboratory had other, long-standing issues with refrigeration, and had established safeguards to prevent temperatures inside the freezer from rising.
On September 14, 2020, for instance, an alarm was triggered because the temperature inside the freezer had risen to -108 degrees Fahrenheit.
Researchers responded to the alarm and were able to prevent any lasting damage to the cell cultures.
Since repair technicians were not immediately available, the freezer’s alarm continued to sound.
Rensselaer scientists enacted additional precautions to ensure that nobody else accessed the freezer while it was awaiting repairs. These precautions included placing a lock box over the freezer’s outlet and socket and posting a sign on the freezer door asking that it not be moved or unplugged for any reason.
However, when the Daigle Cleaning Systems janitor began working in the laboratory on the night of September 17, 2020, he reported hearing “annoying alarms” and thought that something was wrong.
The janitor then walked to the electrical box to check for any problems, “accidentally” turning off “important breakers” in the process.
When researchers arrived to the laboratory the next day, they found that temperatures inside the freezer had risen to -25 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of their samples, attorneys write, were “compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable.”
Michael Ginsberg, an attorney for the university, told McClatchy News that more than two decades of research were lost.
“[The researchers] were very troubled at the prospect of having lost so many years of valuable research,” Ginsberg said.
Ginsberg said that the project was being led by Dr. K.V. Lakshmi, a professor at the university’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
Dr. Lakshmi was studying photosynthetic reactions in cell cultures at low temperatures, with the intent to improve the conversion of solar energy to usable energy.
According to Ginsberg and his clients, recreating Dr. Lakshmi’s research would be an “astronomical undertaking.”
Critically, the lawsuit does not name the individual janitor as a defendant.
In the complaint, the university instead alleges that Daigle Cleaning Services had failed to properly train its employees, leading to the unintentional destruction of valuable property.
“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.”
Daigle Cleaning Services, the lawsuit says, knew—or should have known—that the laboratory housed “highly specialized and delicate equipment, cell cultures and samples.”
The university is seeking $1 million in compensatory damages to recover the costs of reproducing Dr. Lakshmi’s research.