UCLA Felony Charges: Lab Death a Crime, Not an Accident

Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old lab assistant at UCLA, was fatally injured on December 29th, 2008 by a flash fire in the lab of chemistry professor Patrick Harran while transferring a highly hazardous chemical that ignites when exposed to air. She died 18 excruciating days later as a result of burns to 43 percent of her body and inhalation exposure. On the day of the fire, less than two months after her 23rd birthday, the recent Pomona College graduate was 11 weeks into a job she had taken to earn money to go to law school. Tragically, her acceptance to Berkeley Law School arrived on the day of her funeral.

UCLA's claim that Sangji's death was “a horrible accident, not a crime” and therefore no punishment is deserved, is not supported by the evidence provided by Cal/OSHA's Bureau of Investigations or by the state's labor laws. That's why the LA County District Attorney lodged three felony charges against the UC regents, UCLA, and Sangji's boss, chemistry professor Patrick Harran, on December 27, 2011. Harran could face up to 4 1/2 years in a state prison and UCLA could be fined $1.5 million.

Employers are responsible for providing safe workplaces. They control the workplace, establish the rules (in compliance with applicable laws), and ensure accountability – which all define its “safety culture.” An accident is unforeseeable, despite taking precautions to prevent it.

UCLA had a long history of failing to take necessary precautions to prevent injurious incidents, and failed to act after two graduate students were seriously injured in the very same department a year before, and even a week before Sangji's fatal fire. Furthermore, UCLA officials had told Harran that his lab was unsafe, but he ignored the deadline to fix the problems, and UCLA let him get away with it.

With regard to UCLA's responsibility, the Cal/OSHA fatality investigator concluded:

It is apparent that the laboratory safety practices utilized by UCLA prior to Victim Sangji's death, were so defective as to render the University's required Chemical Hygiene Plan and Injury and Illness Prevention Program essentially non-existent. The lack of adequate lab safety training and documentation, lack of effective hazard communication practices, and repeated failure to correct persistent and repeated safety violations within University labs, were all causal deficiencies that led to a systematic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA.

The evidence against Patrick Harran is equally damning. Although Harran claimed Sangji “had been trained by senior [department] personnel in accordance with the [chemical manufacturer's instructions]” and that her undergraduate experience had prepared her to use this explosive chemical, the Cal/OSHA fatality investigator presents a very different picture based on a discussion of Sangji’s experience with her undergraduate advisor at Pomona College, and documents obtained from Norac Pharma, where Sangji had worked for several months before starting at UCLA, which stated

As a junior level chemist [at Norac], she was closely supervised and did not perform any independent experimental work in the lab without direct guidance from her supervisor due to her limited prior laboratory experience.

Harran confirmed that he had not discussed with Sangji the hazards of working with the chemical; failed to ask whether she was familiar with it “prior to directing her to use it”; and admitted that he never tried to determine whether she had actually been trained by his senior researcher, even though he acknowledged the chemical was extremely hazardous. The investigator continued:

More significantly however, was Dr. Harran’s failure to both provide appropriate personal protective equipment to Victim Sangji and to ensure that PPE was utilized by his laboratory personnel.

According to attorney Frances Schreiberg:

Patrick Harran could have been charged with felony manslaughter. The evidence in support of the felony Labor Code charges is solid. Harran’s utter indifference to the health and safety of his laboratory personnel, his heedless approach to basic precautionary standards and accident preparedness, and his inadequate laboratory management illustrate that he both acted and failed to act without due caution and circumspection and with reckless disregard for the lives of his employees. Harran's activities after the event evidenced his desire to protect himself from the consequences of his actions: Harran tampered with evidence to minimize his culpability and tried to hide what he had done both before and after being instructed not to disturb the scene.

Safety advocates at the University and across the country are concerned that at the arraignment (which will take place tomorrow, Feb 2nd at 8:30am at LA Superior Court) the DA will settle felony charges with misdemeanor plea(s) and inadequate or no punishment. Says Schreiberg, who previously headed the Cal/OSHA Bureau of Investigations:

This egregious case is one of the strongest ever referred by the Cal/OSHA Bureau of Investigations.

We urge the DA to ensure that UCLA is punished by a substantial fine and supervised probation, a condition of which should require payment for an independent nonprofit to ensure lab safety and training so others don’t die. Harran should not walk away without punishment. He should be given supervised probation, with conditions that include a substantial fine, jail or suspended jail time, and community service in a burn unit to experience what Sangji suffered for nearly three weeks before she died.

A drunk driver who kills can’t escape punishment claiming devastation and never again. Nor should Patrick Harran.