A judge has ordered a UCLA chemistry professor to stand trial in the death of a 23-year-old research assistant who died from burns she received in a lab fire.
Patrick Harran will be tried on three felony counts of violating workplace safety standards in connection with the death of Sheharbano Sangji. Harran faces 4.5 years in prison if convicted.
Sangji suffered second- and third-degree burns over nearly half her body when chemicals ignited her clothing.
On Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji was transferring a highly flammable substance from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe fell apart in her hands, instantly igniting the air-sensitive chemical.
Her sweater, made of a synthetic material, melted into her skin. She wasn’t wearing a protective lab coat.
Sangji died in the hospital 18 days after being burned.
Harran’s attorney and UCLA are calling Sangji’s death a tragic accident that doesn’t merit criminal charges.
In a statement, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block pledged to support Harran through his trial.
The regents of the University of California had also been charged with three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in Sangji’s death, but those charges were dismissed. The potential penalty for the university had been $4.5 million. The university had called the charges “outrageous.”
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 in an attempt to limit its future liability in the case. The university later dropped the appeal.
At a preliminary hearing in November 2012, Neal Langerman, a chemist with a consulting practice in advanced chemical safety, said Sangji shouldn’t have been handling the chemical without specific training. Langerman called the incident predictable and preventable.
Criminal prosecutions of supervisors in workplace deaths are uncommon but are occurring somewhat more often in recent years.