Janitor Joseph Herrington believed the alarms were signaling an error with the freezer and flipped switches in the circuit breaker in an attempt to help — accidentally turning them all off instead.
A university has filed a lawsuit against a cleaning service after one of its employees destroyed over 20 years of research — by turning off a freezer that was making “annoying” alarm sounds.
As The New York Times reported, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is seeking $1 million in damages from Daigle Cleaning Systems in Albany, New York, for breach of contract and failing to properly train a janitor, Joseph Herrington.
In September 2020, Herrington was working at the university when he became concerned that “annoying alarms” were coming from one of the university’s freezers. Fearing that “important breakers” had been turned off, Herrington flipped the switches on the circuit breaker — inadvertently turning them off rather than back on. According to the university, the freezer being powered down destroyed two decades’ worth of “potentially groundbreaking work.”
Rensselaer is now accusing Herrington’s employer of not adequately training him on “how to handle specialized and delicate equipment,” according to the lawsuit. The suit also acknowledges that Herrington “is a person with special needs.”
The university has remained vague about the nature of the research being conducted in the lab, though the lawsuit mentions that it was being overseen by Professor K.V. Lakshmi, who also serves as the director of Rensselaer’s Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research. The lawsuit claims that Lakshmi was conducting “high level research” in the university’s Cogswell Laboratory building, which included a freezer containing cell cultures and samples that needed to be kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).
The lawsuit additionally states that even a small change in temperature would “cause catastrophic damage and many cell cultures and samples could be lost.”
The freezer was equipped with an alarm that would sound when its internal temperature increased to minus 78 degrees or decreased to minus 82 degrees — which is precisely what happened on September 14, 2020. The freezer’s temperature rose to minus 78 degrees, the alarm went off, and Lakshmi and her team “began taking action immediately to address the cause and to protect the cell structures, samples, and research.”
Thankfully, the cell structures were unharmed at the time, but Lakshmi wanted to avoid any further issues and contacted the freezer’s manufacturer to schedule emergency repairs. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, however, a technician could not be sent out to conduct the repair until September 21.
As USA Today reported, a warning on the freezer read, “THIS FREEZER IS BEEPING AS IT IS UNDER REPAIR. PLEASE DO NOT MOVE OR UNPLUG IT. NO CLEANING REQUIRED IN THIS AREA. YOU CAN PRESS THE ALARM/TEST MUTE BUTTON FOR 5-10 SECONDS IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO MUTE THE SOUND.”
Just four days before the repair technician could be sent out, on September 17, Herrington heard the alarms and worried that something had gone wrong with the freezer. In his deposition, Herrington said he looked at the electrical box and checked a guide for the breakers, believing that the breakers to the freezer had been turned off.
Herrington said he knew “how important the breakers were because his father works in plant/utilities at another college,” so he “turned them back on to make sure he was helping to safeguard the equipment.”
Unfortunately, Herrington misread the breaker guide and accidentally switched the breakers to the “off” position.
The lawsuit acknowledges that Herrington “did not believe he had done anything wrong but was just trying to help.” However, the incident report also stated that “he understood that he had no authority to look inside the panel or touch the breakers, but again maintained he was trying to help.”
Herrington shut off the breakers around 8:30 p.m.
The next day, research students found that the freezer’s temperature had reached minus 25.6 degrees overnight, and efforts were made to preserve the now “compromised” cultures. Unfortunately, most were “unsalvageable, demolishing more than 20 years of research,” according to the lawsuit.
After reading about this catastrophic loss of research, read about another scientific mistake that led researchers to misidentify this ancient fossil for more than 50 years. Or, read about the illegal gold digger who accidentally destroyed a cultural heritage site in Sudan.