The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has filed criminal charges against a college professor who supervised a UCLA lab where a staff research assistant was killed in a fire three years ago. The University of California also faces millions of dollars in criminal fines in the case.
Sheharbano Sangji, 23, suffered second- and third-degree burns over nearly half her body when chemicals ignited and burned her clothing.
Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, instantly igniting the air-sensitive chemical.
The synthetic sweater she was wearing melted into her skin. She wasn’t wearing a protective lab coat. She died 18 days later.
Cal-OSHA fined UCLA $31,875 for three serious violations, including lack of proper employee training and lack of protective clothing. UCLA paid the fine but contested the citations to limit its future liability in the case. It later dropped the appeal.
Professor Patrick Harran, a prominent researcher, and the regents of the University of California are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in Sangji’s death.
Harran faces up to 4.5 years in prison on the charges. UCLA could be fined up to $4.5 million. Harran plans to plead not guilty.
“UCLA intends to mount a vigorous defense against the outrageous charges,” the university said in a statement. “The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree.”
An internal UCLA investigation just months before the incident showed that safety practices in its labs were deficient.