Friday, January 20, 2017

Thea Ekins-Coward is suing the University of Hawaii

On March 16, 2016, Dr. Thea Ekins-Coward was working in the laboratory of Dr. Jian Yu at the University of Hawaii on a biofuels project with a high-pressure hydrogen/oxygen mix. Because the mixture was in an inappropriate tank and the system was not grounded, the tank exploded and Dr. Ekins-Coward was severely injured. Here is the longer C&EN article about the investigative report about the incident. 

Yesterday, she filed suit against the University of Hawaii. From the short article by Jyllian Kemsley:
...Ekins-Coward lost her right lower arm and elbow and “suffered abrasions to her cornea, burns on her face, and nerve damage to her ears with resulting loss of high frequency hearing,” according to a civil complaint filed with a Hawaii court on Jan. 9. 
Ekins-Coward worked for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. The defendants named in the suit are UH; Jian Yu, the principal investigator of the lab in which Ekins-Coward worked; and Richard E. Rocheleau, director of the institute. 
The defendants “negligently, grossly negligently, carelessly and recklessly breached their duty by providing unsafe and improper equipment, by failing to provide adequate training, by failing to follow safety codes, standards and regulations in laboratory safety, by directing Thea Ekins-Coward to undertake experiments that were inherently and unnecessarily unsafe, by failing to make reasonable inspection of the equipment, and by failing to warn of any inadequacy of the equipment or the possible dangerous condition,” the complaint says...
Here is a copy of the lawsuit. After reading it, the basic argument of the lawsuit seems to be:
  • Dr. Yu approved the purchase of the incorrect equipment. 
  • On October 7, 2015, Dr. Ekins-Coward asked for safety training on compressed gases and Dr. Yu did not give it to her. 
  • On October 21, 2015, Dr. Ekins-Coward asked for safety training on the specific hazards of the gases that she was using and Dr. Yu failed to give it to her. 
  • Therefore, they breached their duty to follow correct procedures. 
I presume this is an opening gambit in what will end up in a lot of fees to lawyers and ultimately a settlement.* I will be interested to see if the University of Hawaii will defend Drs. Yu and Rocheleau. Readers, your thoughts? 

*I still don't understand why the Sangji family never sued Professor Harran or the UC system. While I don't doubt that the UC system would have buried the Sangji family in lawyers, they would seem to have had as strong of a case as Dr. Ekins-Coward has here, and there undoubtedly would have been some sort of a settlement, as I presume there will be here. 

16 comments:

  1. It's obvious to me that Yu got all the way to a professor position by parroting facts without understanding them if he didn't know that a mixture of H2 and O2 could go kaboom. If anything, the U of Hawaii is responsible for failing to detect this and putting him in charge of a lab.

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    1. Without placing blame, Dr. Elkins-Coward also holds a PhD and should have known about the hazards of the materials and equipment she was using. These types of accidents are complex and I do not think blame can so easily be applied only to a PI or institution. As a PhD chemist who works with hazardous materials regularly, I know that the person who cares the most about my safety is me, and I act accordingly.

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    2. The lawsuit alleges that Elkins-Coward requested training from Dr. Yu, to which she was denied. If that is the case, the PI is 100% in the wrong based simply on what the law requires of the employer. It doesn't matter what the employee actually knows, if the employer doesn't provide training, no good faith has been established.



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    3. "Without placing blame", wow how nineteenth century. Since it's so clearly the victim's own fault, how about asking her to pay for the equipment she damaged?

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    4. Anon 7:56 here-

      To address the first comment: I agree that the employer should have provided proper training, and legally they are liable. Since the employer's legal responsibility did not protect Dr. Elkins-Coward, and since we do not live in a perfect world where every employer will now provide comprehensive training and ideal equipment, I am interested in the squishy "human element". Dr. Elkins-Coward's training requests indicate that she knew there were hazards. Dr. Yu did not give the appropriate training, and she continued to use the compressed gasses without the training. My takeaway from this is that you have to stick up for yourself and protect yourself, because your employer may not.

      As for the second comment, I am not blaming the victim. Unlike your emotionally motivated response, I am simply saying (poorly, perhaps) that there are hazards in laboratories and accidents happen. Some are freak accidents, some happen because we don't know what we're doing, some happen because we're human and we screw up, some happen due to exhaustion or negligence or bad equipment, accidents just happen. Since we can only control our own actions, we should make our own safety a priority.

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    5. An interesting contrast between the Ekins-Coward case and the Sangji case is that it's likely that Dr. Ekins-Coward had the technical training to know the hazards that she was facing, and it is relatively unlikely that Ms. Sangji did.

      In my opinion, that shifts the balance of responsibility to Dr. Ekins-Coward somewhat.

      A real problem is this: For a variety of reasons, Dr. Ekins-Coward apparently felt that the situation was unsafe, yet continued to work in the Yu Laboratory. Telling your direct supervisors (note that it seemed that Dr. Ekins-Coward worked in the HNEI at the pleasure of Dr. Yu) that "No, I am not going to continue to work in these unsafe conditions" is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

      If this is what academic chemical safety is relying on (i.e. a junior scientist speaking up against a senior scientist), then academic laboratories carry risk that should be much better communicated.

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    6. I agree with CJ. I would have drank bleach if my advisor told me to do it, and I suspect Elkins-Coward knew she had created a bomb but was afraid to contradict her advisor.

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    7. "then academic laboratories carry risk that should be much better communicated."

      CJ, you can do better than that. You don't *communicate* risk of grave injury, you *mitigate* it, especially if the state of the art allows to. There needs to be a system in place that doesn't rely on those on the bottom of the totem pole to utter concerns and put their job at risk. I did that once (unshielded autoclave on the benchtop in a shared lab, with a reaction that had a documented history of thermal excursions) and don't want to repeat that experience.

      I'd suggest going after the EH&S guy for example. Why did he sign off on a bomb? If he didn't, why did the supervisor not ask EH&S to sign off on it.

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    8. The EHS guy probably had no idea. In grad school, each lab is its own fiefdom with its own rules. When I was in grad school, I saw very little of our departmental safety guy after new student orientation was over.

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    9. By "better communicated", I mean a waiver that says something like "ABANDON ALL HOPE OF SAFETY, THOSE WHO ENTER HERE."

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    10. When I was in grad school, the EH&S people were a) not very good and b) relentlessly bullied by the tenured professors. What did you expect them to do? EH&S is only effective if they can enforce consequences, not very likely when against a professor. You got to go after the professor and department chair for allowing a rampant un-safety culture.

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  2. I hope this does not end up being she said-she said! If Dr. Ekins-Coward can produce documentary proof that her Prof. Yu did not provide-the later is toast along with Univ. Hawaii and may be that there is more collateral damage. I agree that this will be settled out of court but I also want to find out what kind of precautionary measures Dr. Yu's lab had in place?

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  3. Sadly, I don't think this is the last time we'll see a serious accident in an academic lab. It seems like safety really takes a backseat in academic labs, if it even gets into the car in the first place.

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  4. Dr. Ekins-Coward, having survived her injury, has loss of income and ongoing long term medical expenses that are an impetus to filing a lawsuit. I bet anything that U. Hawaii wants to keep this case from ending up in civil court with a jury trial; a young woman with an amputated arm will have the sympathy of the jury, no doubt.

    Sadly, Sheri Sandji having not survived her injuries, did not have ongoing medical bills or loss of income, per se. If she had had children or other dependents, that would be a good reason to go to court with a suit, since they would be deprived of Sandji's income. On the other hand, perhaps her family thought that justice would be served by going to criminal court with the negligiance charges against the professor.

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  5. Go get them Thea!!! wish you and Amy the best 2017!!!

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  6. Workers Comp case, ugh... good luck and hang in there, could be years until resolution.

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