California Chemistry Professor Arraigned In Lab Death Case | September 10, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 37 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 37 | p. 7 | News of The Week
Issue Date: September 10, 2012 | Web Date: September 7, 2012

California Chemistry Professor Arraigned In Lab Death Case

Lab Safety: Court enters not guilty plea for Patrick Harran, sets preliminary hearing for Oct. 9
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Safety
Keywords: Sangji, UCLA, Harran, death, safety, lab safety

A judge in a Los Angeles County court moved forward last week with arraignment of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran on three felony labor code violations. The court entered a plea of not guilty for Harran because his attorneys had objected to the arraignment altogether.

Harran was in charge of the UCLA laboratory where, in 2008, research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was severely burned in a fire; she died 18 days later from her injuries. Because of the judge’s decision to move ahead with the arraignment, Harran’s attorneys withdrew a motion, filed on July 26, that challenged the chemistry professor’s arrest warrant as well as the credibility of a California state investigator whose report on the accident was used to charge Harran.

LA County Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba scheduled a preliminary hearing for Oct. 9. Evidence in the case will be heard on that court date, and a decision will be rendered on whether prosecutors have enough evidence to support a criminal trial. Harran’s defense team says they will reserve the right to bring up objections made in their July motion to dismiss.

At last week’s arraignment, LA County Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum said that discussions of a plea deal between his office and Harran’s attorneys had ended.

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Raman Parkesh  (September 8, 2012 9:25 AM)
great decision by the court. Let Harran face the consequence for his actions. Harran should be made accountable. I am really sad that UCLA got away with this murder.
Dmitry  (September 10, 2012 12:57 AM)
I would argue that it was an accident.
Ray Exley, MD  (September 11, 2012 8:48 PM)
I have both a BSc in Chemistry, and an MD degree. I have considerable time in university laboratories, including many chem labs. These are inherently dangerous places, and it is impossible for one or even several grad students to prevent the accidents which inevitably occur when trying to train chemistry students, including grad students.

In the emergency room, and I was an ER physician for several years at both the LA Co Hospital, and Martin Luther King Hospital, and I have seen many many injuries, from accidents of all kinds and some from intentional acts, such as fights or attempted murder.

Clearly there is a great difference between intentional, not intentional, and negligent acts which directly or indirectly are claimed to have been criminally causal to the injury. I have also served as an expert in many trials involving claimed malpractice in civil court.

I am not familiar with the details of this casee, but it seems unlikely that the lab supervisor was directly and intentionally causal to the injuries and death. ie Did he throw a combustible liquid on the victim and light it? I doubt it.

Much more likely is that he was the named responsible person for the running of the lab, and may not have ever interacted with the victim. This is much more likely, in my experience.

Thus, based on my experience, but without any specific details of the events this seems to be much much more likely to be a case of a negligence claim, in civil court not a criminal charge, as that requires the intent to do something illegal, which resulted directly in the injuries. Did that happen? I doubt it, but I would like to know the details of this case, as my impression now is that criminal charges are very unlikely to be justified in this situation, and someone is overreaching to file them.
Ray Exley, MD  (September 11, 2012 9:13 PM)
I found an article in the C&E news, which provides much of the details on this incident.

It is at

Based upon that description, Dr. Harran is being criminally charged for allegedly failing to protect the victim from her own errors. She was a graduate in Chemistry from Pomona with considerable lab experience. But the bases from these crimanl charges are a Cal OSHA report which noted the following problems in this labs safety proceedures:

Because Sangji was an employee rather than a graduate student, Cal/OSHA investigated the incident; as a result of the investigation Cal/OSHA fined the university $31,875 (C&EN, May 11, page 7). The agency cited the UCLA chemistry and biochemistry department for lack of training; failure to document training; failing to correct unsafe laboratory conditions and work practices identified in an Oct. 30, 2008, inspection of Harran’s lab; and failing to ensure that employees wore appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as lab coats.

On the training front, prior to the incident, the UCLA EH&S office conducted general laboratory safety training at the beginning of every quarter, while principal investigators provided laboratory-specific training.

Having started in mid-October, Sangji missed the EH&S training and would have been expected to attend in January, says James Gibson, director of EH&S. Neither Chen nor Ding had received general safety training from EH&S, either—Chen started at UCLA on Oct. 10, 2008, and Ding told Cal/OSHA investigator Porras in January that he had been at UCLA for four months. Harran and UCLA maintain that all researchers had the laboratory-specific training needed to perform their work safely. EH&S now provides general safety training monthly, and researchers cannot receive keys to their labs until the training is complete, Gibson says.

End of the exercept from the Cal OSHA report.

If this is the basis for Criminal charges against Dr. Hurron, then no one is safe from overreaching prosecutors. There is nothing criminal in the deficiencies cited in the Cal OSHA report.

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