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Criminal case in fatal UCLA lab fire advances

Case against UCLA professor Patrick Harran moves closer to trial after judge refuses to dismiss 4 felony charges in 2008 lab fire.

August 26, 2013|By Kim Christensen
  • UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran is charged in the 2008 death of staff research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.
UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran is charged in the 2008 death of… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The criminal case against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran moved closer to trial Monday when a judge refused to dismiss four felony charges stemming from a laboratory fire that killed a 23-year-old staff research assistant.

Harran's trial could begin within 60 days of an Oct. 3 pretrial hearing — or roughly five years after Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji suffered severe burns when a plastic syringe she was using to transfer t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another came apart, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air.

Sangji was not wearing a protective lab coat when she was burned over nearly half her body Dec. 29, 2008. She died 18 days later.

In what is thought to be the first criminal case involving an academic lab, Harran, 44, is charged with willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards. He is accused of failing to provide proper hazardous-chemical safety training, failing to require body protection for employees exposed to hazardous substances, and failing to have an effective illness- and injury-prevention program.

If convicted, Harran faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison. His attorney, Thomas O'Brien, declined to comment Monday.

Harran and UCLA long have said that Sangji, who'd graduated five months earlier from Pomona College with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear a lab coat. They also contend that she had been trained in conducting the experiment by a senior researcher in Harran's lab.

At Monday's hearing, Harran's lawyers argued that he did not willfully violate any laws and that the labor codes under which he was charged did not apply to him because UCLA — not Harran — was Sangji's employer.

"This accident did not happen at Harran Laboratories Inc. .... It happened at UCLA's laboratory," attorney John J. O'Kane IV said.

Three felony counts against the University of California were dropped last year when its Board of Regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name.

In refusing to dismiss the charges against Harran, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said Monday he was not convinced that Sangji had been trained properly. And because Harran had the authority to "hire and fire" his lab personnel, Lomeli flatly rejected the argument that the professor was not bound by the labor code.

"The court concludes that he's an employer, period," the judge said.

Lomeli also rejected the defense allegation that the charges, filed in December 2011, did not fall within the statute of limitations. And he denied its request for a hearing to challenge the credibility of a Cal-OSHA investigator who wrote a 95-page report on which the charges were based.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

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