Every American since the inception of the modern smoke detector has been there.
You are trying to get in a good night’s sleep, and despite there being nary a sign of fire or smoke, that blasted smoke alarm keeps periodically chirping.
Given how ubiquitous the above scenario is, every American is also intimately familiar with wearily trudging to the alarm and either turning it off or removing its batteries.
What most Americans are not familiar with, however, is when that trek to shut down the incessant beeping ends up costing a million dollars.
That almost unbelievable scenario is the exact one that a janitor has found himself in after he took it upon himself to shut down a freezer that was incessantly beeping in a lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
The Albany Times Union procured the lawsuit filed by RPI against Daigle Cleaning Services, the third-party cleaning service that the research university uses and that employs the janitor in question.
According to that lawsuit, this calamitous “whoopsies” happened Sept. 17, 2020, but the root of the issue could be traced back a few days prior.
On Sept. 14, 2020, when the alarm on the freezer in question first erroneously went off (the alarm is supposed to go off when the samples inside of the freezer reach certain temperature milestones), RPI thought the issue was resolved.
The professor overseeing the project called for repairs, but those repairs were delayed because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
The lawsuit claims a note with instructions on how to mute the broken alarm was left near the freezer.
“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,” the note read, according to the lawsuit.
The janitor, who was described as having been “annoyed” with the beeping, allegedly shut down the noise by flipping a circuit breaker.
When that circuit breaker was flipped, it also turned off or reset the freezer unit, sending the samples in it to fatal temperatures, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit said that despite the team’s best efforts to salvage the samples in the freezer, “a majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable demolishing more than 20 years of research.”
Michael Ginsburg, one of the attorneys representing RPI, actually described the incident as having cost the laboratory even more than 20 years of research.
“People’s behavior and negligence caused all this. Unfortunately, they wiped out 25 years of research,” Ginsberg said.
Regardless of how many years of scientific progress were lost, Ginsburg estimated the cost of recreating the lost research would be $1 million.
RPI sues janitor for hitting light switch? Really? What kind of lessons does this give students? Blame others for your incompetence? Ignore best practices when it comes to engineering & research management?
Really? #stupidity #incompetence pic.twitter.com/b4nbkLr5Lk
— Charles (@chasviews) June 25, 2023
Of note, RPI’s lawsuit against Daigle is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
Interestingly, the Times Union reported the janitor appeared to be remorseless following a round of questioning and instead thought he had done the institute a favor by shutting down the beeping.
The project in question focused on exploring photosynthesis and was described as having a potential impact on solar panels.
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