College Alleges Cleaner Turned Off Lab Freezer and Destroyed Research

It's suing for damages after losing more than 20 years of work.

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TROY, N.Y. (AP) — More than 20 years of cell cultures and other specimens stored at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were destroyed when a cleaner switched off power to a lab freezer, according to a lawsuit filed by the school.

RPI is seeking $1 million from Daigle Cleaning Systems, claiming one of the company's employees turned off the circuit breaker for the freezer, which must keep specimens at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius), according to the lawsuit filed this month.

The freezer was used by researchers studying how plants use photosynthesis to create energy. A notice had been placed on the unit's door reading in part, "THIS FREEZER IS BEEPING AS IT IS UNDER REPAIR. PLEASE DO NOT MOVE OR UNPLUG IT," shortly before the cleaner came into the lab on Sept. 17, 2020.

The cleaner heard the "annoying" alarm that evening and tried to help by turning the circuit breakers on. But the cleaner actually moved the breakers from the "on" to "off" position. The temperature inside the freezer rose to minus 26 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 32 degrees Celsius), the lawsuit said.

Graduate researchers discovered the freezer was off the next day and tried the mitigate the damage, but "a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable," demolishing more than 20 years of research, according to the complaint.

A call seeking comment was made the cleaning company.

The suit was first reported by the Times Union of Albany.

The filing said the cleaner is a person with "special needs." An attorney representing RPI, Michael Ginsberg, said he couldn't elaborate. The lawsuit alleges the company is at fault for failing to properly train and supervise their employee.

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