UC, UCLA professor face felony charges in fatal lab fire


In 2008, staff research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji sustained burns to nearly 50 percent of her body when an experiment burst into flames. Sangji was not wearing a protective lab coat. The 23 year old died a few weeks later.

Chemistry professor Patrick Harran, 42, and the Board of Regents face three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards causing death.

Harran was Sangji's supervisor. She had been working for him for six months before the accident.

An arrest warrant was issued for Harran, who faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted. The school system could be fined about $4.5 million.

"These charges are the first step towards holding Harran and UCLA accountable for their deliberate and repeated disregard of the laws meant to keep people safe," Sangji's sister, Naveen Sangji, told Eyewitness News. "The filing of these charges will not bring Sheri back, or ease our suffering, but we do hope that it will keep other young people safe and keep families from being destroyed the way ours has."

In May 2009, UCLA was fined $31,875 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA. The workplace safety regulators found that Sangji had not been properly trained and should have been wearing protective clothing.

The university and Harran have maintained that the death was an accident that does not merit criminal charges.

In a statement, UCLA said it will mount a vigorous defense against the "outrageous" charges.

"The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree," the statement said.

UCLA is scheduled to be in court Jan. 12, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

According to Harran's attorney, he is out of town but will turn himself in once he returns to Southern California.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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