Civil suit filed against University of Hawaii for lab explosion

Debris littered a lab bench after the explosion in March 2016. Credit: Honolulu Fire Department

Debris littered a lab bench after the explosion in March 2016. Credit: Honolulu Fire Department

From my story in C&EN last week:

An injured postdoctoral researcher and her spouse have filed a civil suit against the University of Hawaii (UH) and others involved for a 2016 explosion in which the researcher lost one of her arms.

At the time of the incident, postdoc Thea Ekins-Coward was preparing a gas mixture of 55% hydrogen, 38% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide to feed to bacteria to produce biofuels, according to a report issued by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS). The center was hired by UH to investigate the incident.

The gases were combined in an ungrounded 49-L steel tank designed for compressed air, not for hazardous gases. UCCLS concluded that a static discharge most likely caused the explosion.

Ekins-Coward lost her right lower arm and elbow and suffered corneal abrasions, facial burns, and loss of high frequency hearing from nerve damage to her ears, 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.

From the suit itself:

Defendants, and each of them, had a duty to train, warn and provide proper equipment to Thea Ekins-Coward, and to follow all applicable safety codes, standards, and regulations for the laboratory and for the type of experiments being conducted in the laboratory.

Defendants, and each of them, 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.

These are the specific claims:

  1. Personal injury
  2. Negligence
  3. Gross negligence
  4. Failure to warn
  5. Dangerous condition of public property
  6. Negligent infliction of emotional distress
  7. Intentional infliction of emotional distress
  8. Loss of consortium

The court filing says that “plaintiffs pray that judgment be entered against defendants jointly and severally for reasonable expenses of injury, special and general damages, pre-judgment and postjudgment interest, costs, attorneys’ fees and such other relief as the Court deems just,” but doesn’t give a specific amount of compensation.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

Share This Post On

1 Comment

  1. Following the tragedy at UCLA several years ago where a research student died in a lab fire, it’s clear that a lot of state schools are neglecting their laboratory safety programs. Hawaii’s state OSHA program was essentially suspended and taken over by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration due to what they called “severe programmatic, staffing and training challenges.”

    They are back to running their own program in 2016, but it appears not all is well.