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Janitor accidentally destroys 20 years of cell research by turning off freezer due to 'annoying alarms'

By Melanie Uson Published Jun 28, 2023 12:16 pm

A janitor accidentally ruined decades of "groundbreaking" cell research by turning off the freezer simply because its alarms "annoyed" him.

According to a report by The Washington Post, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute filed a lawsuit against cleaning services company Daigle Cleaning Systems on June 16—three years after the incident occurred.

The units with specimens must be stored in the freezer at -80 Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit), but it needed an emergency repair at the time as the temperature dropped to –78 Celsius (-108 F), which prompted “consistent alarms.” 

Professor K.V. Lakshmi, who is in charge of the cell research, took various measures to protect the cell samples until the emergency repairs finished on September 21, 2020. She put a safety lock on the freezer’s outlet and socket along with a warning note on the freezer that said: “This freezer is beeping as it is under repair. Please do not move or unplug it. No cleaning is required in this area. You can press the alarm/test the mute button for 5-10 seconds if you would like to mute the sound,” written in all caps. 

Prof. Lakshmi and her team later found their cells destroyed after a janitor allegedly heard the alarms and got annoyed at them. According to the lawsuit, he mistakenly turned off the circuit breakers from “on” to “off,” which made the temperature drop to -32 C (- 26 F). As a result, the protected samples were “compromised, destroyed, and rendered unsalvageable, demolishing more than 20 years of research.” 

School officials claim that Prof. Lakshmi's research about photosynthesis had “the potential to be groundbreaking” for solar technology. 

According to a PEOPLE report, the court filing stated that the janitor "admitted to turning off the circuit breaker, causing the freezer to shut off"—with the damage amounting to "a sum not less than one million dollars ($1,000,000)” or over P55 million.  

An incident report on the matter likewise stated that the janitor admitted to hearing the “annoying alarms” at the time of the accident.  

Despite what happened, the institute said in the lawsuit that the janitor is not at fault and pointed out that employer only failed to “properly train" him.  

“An ounce of prevention in the employee’s training would have gone a long way here,” university lawyer Michael Ginsberg told The Washington Post.