In a case that has transfixed the scientific community and mobilized health and safety activists, UCLA professor Patrick Harran struck a deal with prosecutors on criminal charges stemming from the 2008 laboratory fire that killed 23-year-old Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, a research assistant and UPTE-CWA Local 9119 member.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Harran had faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted of the four felony counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards in Sangji's death.
Instead, under a "deferred prosecution agreement," Harran has been ordered to complete six months of community service and pay a $10,000 fine to the burn center that treated Sangji. The charges against him will be dropped if he completes his community service requirements in the next five years and his lab has no further safety violations.
23-year-old Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, a research assistant and UPTE-CWA Local 9119 member, was killed in a laboratory fire in 2008.
The judge, apparently moved by testimony from Sangji's family and friends, had doubled the fine and Harran's community service obligation. Sangji's family and members of UPTE's Health and Safety Committee were disappointed that the Los Angeles District Attorney chose to settle this case rather than pursue a trial.
It's been a long fight for justice. UPTE-CWA leaders have been pushing authorities to pursue Sangji's case since the accident. In December 2008, Sangji was transferring t-butyl lithium – a solution that combusts on contact with air – from one container to another, when her plastic syringe came apart. The solution spilled onto Sanji and instantly burst into flames. She wasn't wearing a lab coat because no one had instructed her to. And her rubber gloves didn't provide any protection as the fire spread. Sangji suffered severe burns and died 18 days later.
In July 2012, three felony counts against the University of California were dropped when the Board of Regents agreed to improve lab safety programs and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name.
Naveen Sangji, sister of the victim, said the recent settlement is "barely a slap on the wrist."
"Patrick Harran has been completely unrepentant about ordering Sheri to perform an extremely dangerous experiment without providing her with training or supervision as he is required by law," she said. "The University of California leadership, perhaps because of its culpability, and perhaps because of grant monies Harran brings in, has also refused to hold him accountable. We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers. We can only hope that other young individuals are protected in the future."
As a result of serious incidents and deaths in academic labs, including the Sangji case, the National Research Council issued a report last month that stated, "Everyone involved in the academic chemical research enterprise – from researchers and principal investigators to university leadership – has an important role to play in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture." And in colleges across the country, the UCLA lab accident now serves as a powerful case study in lab safety trainings.