$1M in Research Lost After Custodian Flips Wrong Switch: Suit

University says research samples got much too warm after custodian tried to deal with alarm
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 27, 2023 1:30 AM CDT
Updated Jul 1, 2023 4:00 PM CDT
Custodian Flips Switch, Destroys $1M Worth of Research: Lawsuit
Stock photo.   (Getty Images / frantic00)

More than two decades of "potentially groundbreaking" research was lost after one errant flip of a switch by a custodian, a private technological research university says in a lawsuit. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, says that it had contracted with Daigle Cleaning Systems Inc. to clean the Cogswell Building lab for more than 20 years when, in September 2020, something went devastatingly awry, the Albany Times-Union reports. In a freezer containing research samples that must be kept at -80 degrees Celsius, an alarm was set to go off if the temperature fluctuated by 2 degrees Celsius. After the alarm apparently malfunctioned, however, the school says a custodian accidentally turned the freezer off entirely, NBC News reports.

Days before the accident, the alarm had gone off despite the samples being at a safe temperature. Because of the COVID pandemic, the manufacturer could not perform emergency maintenance services until a week later; in the meantime, the school put safety precautions in place, including a sign on the freezer explaining that it was "beeping as it is under repair," along with instructions for how to mute the sound if needed. But on the night of the accident, the custodian reported hearing the "annoying" alarm going off and, afraid the breakers might be off, he tried to turn them on. Instead, the lawsuit says, he turned the breakers off. The following day, research staff found the temperature in the freezer to be catastrophically high as a result.

"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 says, adding that "a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed, and rendered unsalvageable demolishing more than twenty (20) years of research." The school is suing the cleaning company, accusing it of failing to properly train its employee, who has special needs, according to the lawsuit. The suit says the research, which had to do with "Solar energy conversion in photosynthesis systems; capturing and converting it to useable energy," was worth more than $1 million. (More scientific research stories.)

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