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Case begins against professor, UC regents in UCLA researcher's death

July 26, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A UCLA chemistry professor faces charges in the death of a research assistant following a lab fire. It's a case that could impact campus labs throughout California.

When it comes to research facilities, few universities can touch UCLA. The university has 4,000 labs which consistently produce major scientific advances. But a fatal accident in one of the labs has cast doubt over how safe those labs really are.

Now, a chemistry professor and the university face felony charges in the death of a young researcher who died in a chemical fire.

According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity, the case will have consequences -- not just for UCLA, but for every campus lab in California.

Sheri Sangji, a young research associate, died of severe burns from a chemical lab fire at UCLA nearly four years ago. She was only 23.

"Sheri was working in a laboratory in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world, and there should be no safer place for someone to go to work," said Dr. Naveen Sangji, Sheri Sangji's sister.

Sangji was working for Patrick Harran, a highly-recruited, hard-charging professor in the chemistry department.

On December 29, 2008, Sangji was in Harran's lab. She was working with this bottle of t-butyl-lithium, a highly volatile chemical that ignites when simply exposed to air. In a flash, she caught on fire. Sangji was transferring the chemical using a syringe and had accidentally pulled out the plunger.

"When I arrived at the hospital almost 50 percent of her body was severely burned," said Naveen Sangji. "Her hands were burned down all the way to tendon. Her abdominal wall had been burnt off, she had third-degree burns to her neck."

She died 18 days later.

Investigators from the state Occupational Health And Safety Agency (Cal OSHA) questioned Professor Harran in a deposition obtained for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Investigator: "When Sheri arrived, do you know if she received any general lab safety training from the university?"

Harran: "I don't believe she received generalized safety training. I believe my assistant was told that it was not offered for her category per se."

They determined that Sheri Sangji had not been taught how to work safely with the dangerous chemical.

Investigator: "Did you ever discuss the characteristics of t-butyl-lithium with Sheri?"

Harran: "No, not of t-butyl-lithium specifically, no."

Investigator: "Did you have any fire-resistant clothing available for employees to use when handling t-butyl-lithium?"

Harran: "Not fire-resistant clothing, no."

Based on Cal-OSHA findings, Professor Harran is facing three felony counts. It's the first time a professor in the United States has been charged with a felony for the workplace death of an employee.

Ellen Widess oversees Cal-OSHA and its Bureau of Investigations, which is empowered to build criminal cases and recommend felony charges.

"Making criminal referrals is absolutely important for those kinds of cases where there is such employer culpability and the injury is serious. In most states, penalties are so minimal that they do become a cost of doing business," said Widess.

Nationally, causing a workplace death or serious injury is at most a misdemeanor. California is taking a harder line.

Professor Harran did not respond to interview requests, but he defended himself in a 2009 letter to the Los Angeles Times: "Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri's death resulted from a tragic accident."

UCLA and the UC Regents are also named in the felony complaint. They too declined to comment. But in a written statement, the UCLA chancellor vowed to support Professor Harran and fight what he called unwarranted criminal charges.

"I think this is a landmark case," said Jim Kaufman, president and CEO, Laboratory Safety Institute.

Jim Kaufman is a leading lab safety expert.

"This was a tsunami throughout academia that criminal charges were being filed against the university," said Kaufman. "I think good things are going to come as a result of this, and that Sheri Sangji's death will not be in vain."

Since Sangji's death, UCLA has founded the Center for Laboratory Safety. And it says in a video that it will raise safety standards in academic labs: "The chancellor has made it clear that he wants to see UCLA as best in class. And as a result of that, we're really putting a lot of energy and effort into sharing our experiences with other universities."

The university has paid Cal-OSHA fines related to the Sangji accident, and for other violations they uncovered. UCLA is contesting another fine for not reporting a previous lab accident that seriously burned a graduate student.

The Harran case is being closely watched by lab workers at other California campuses, which have experienced at least seven chemical accidents since Sangi's death.

"Incidents like these don't just happen, they happen because several processes are very wrong," said Naveen Sangji. "Sheri should not have suffered that way."

Professor Harran faces up to four and one-half years in prison if he's convicted, and UCLA a fine of $1 million for each of the three counts that it faces.


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