Lab Death Legal Cases Resolved

Felony charges against the University of California and chemistry professor Patrick Harran dropped in exchange for safety program and community service

Jyllian Kemsley

Sangji Credit: Naveen Sangji

Credit: Naveen Sangji

In 2009, chemistry research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji died of injuries sustained in a laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles. The last of the criminal cases stemming from Sangji’s death was settled this year when UCLA chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran reached an agreement with the district attorney’s office.

On Dec. 28, 2008, Sangji was using a syringe to transfer tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. The plunger came out of the syringe barrel, and the material and Sangji’s clothing ignited. The fire severely burned her torso, neck, arms, and thighs. She died nearly three weeks later.

Sangji was 23 and had received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Pomona College the previous spring. Records obtained by C&EN and court testimony indicate that she likely received minimal and poor training at UCLA for how to handle the pyrophoric chemical. She also did not wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) fined UCLA $31,875 in the wake of Sangji’s death. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office subsequently filed felony charges of labor code violations against the UC system and Harran. The charges centered on not training, not requiring personal protective equipment, and not correcting unsafe work conditions.

UC settled its case with the district attorney in 2012. The agreement required UC to accept responsibility for lab operating conditions, establish a law scholarship in Sangji’s name, and follow a specified lab safety program. If UC meets the terms of the agreement, the charges will be dropped in 2016.

Harran reached his own agreement with the district attorney in June. Harran must also accept responsibility for lab conditions and adhere to state safety standards, in addition to paying $10,000 to the burn center that treated Sangji and completing multiple forms of community service. As of a Nov. 20 hearing, Harran had paid the fine and started the service. If Harran meets the terms of the agreement, the charges will be dropped in 2019.

Overall, UC paid nearly $4.5 million to outside legal counsel to defend the cases, including $1.3 million to the firm that represented UC and $3.1 million to the firm that represented Harran.

Sangji’s family members did not pursue a suit against the university or professor. They called both settlements “barely a slap on the wrist” in a statement released by Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, after Harran’s agreement was announced. The family added, “We can only hope that other young individuals are better protected in the future.”

Sheri Sangji’s death in 2009 triggered worker-safety citations and felony charges

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