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University Of California Reaches Agreement In Connection With Charges In Lab Researcher’s Death

Lab Safety: Felony charges against UC system are dropped, case against UCLA’s Patrick Harran continues

by Michael Torrice & Jyllian Kemsley
August 2, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 32

Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times
UCLA chemistry professor Harran (left) appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court July 27 with his attorney, Thomas O’Brien.
Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times
UCLA chemistry professor Harran (left) appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court July 27 with his attorney, Thomas O’Brien.

Prosecutors have dropped an unprecedented set of felony charges against the Board of Regents of the University of California that stem from a 2008 lab fire and subsequent death of a young chemistry researcher at UC Los Angeles.

To download a PDF of the UC agreement, go to

To download a PDF of defense’s motion, go to

In exchange, the regents accepted responsibility for safety conditions that contributed to the extensive burns suffered by 23-year-old Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji when she spilled a highly flammable compound. She died 18 days later. The charges against the regents were labor code violations.

“UCLA and the regents have finally admitted that they wronged Sheri terribly,” says Naveen Sangji, Sheri’s sister. “Our family’s pain will not diminish, but our hope, of course, is that no one else has to suffer the way Sheri did, and that such tragedies are avoided in the future.”

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office did not drop similar charges against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who ran the laboratory where Sangji worked. The case against Harran, which could result in a prison term, has been postponed until Sept. 5, while the judge in the case reviews a motion filed by Harran’s attorney that could lead to a dismissal of charges.

The fire in Harran’s lab started as Sangji used a syringe to transfer tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. The plunger came out of the syringe barrel, causing the compound to burst into flames. Sangji was not wearing a lab coat, and her clothes caught fire, burning her torso, arms, and hands.

In their deal with prosecutors, the UC Board of Regents also agreed to establish an environmental law scholarship at UC Berkeley in Sangji’s name and to maintain a laboratory safety program for chemistry and/or biochemistry departments at all of its campuses.

The safety program specified in the agreement requires safety training for principal investigators and other lab personnel. It also includes provisions for written standard operating procedures for a list of chemicals and outlines minimal personal protective equipment for labs. Principal investigators must review standard operating procedures and assess whether personal protective equipment is adequate for lab procedures.

The program largely requires the UC system to follow the labor code it was charged with breaking. Nevertheless, the fact that the case has “culminated in an explicit agreement saying ‘do it right’ is incredibly powerful,” says Neal Langerman, founder of the San Diego-based consulting company Advanced Chemical Safety and past chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

Universities across the country have been watching the case and are now reading the agreement with an eye toward what they might implement in their own lab safety programs, representatives say. “I think a lot of us are mulling what makes sense for our institutions to do to improve safety,” says Peter C. Ashbrook, director of research safety at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The motion filed by Harran’s defense attorney questions the credibility of California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator Brian A. Baudendistel based on an alleged conviction for a murder in 1985, when he was a minor. Baudendistel authored the 2009 report that the agency sent to the district attorney recommending criminal charges in the case.

UC Vice President and General Counsel Charles F. Robinson pledged that UC will continue to support Harran’s defense. “Professor Harran is not responsible for this horrific accident,” Robinson says. “The university has acknowledged its role in overseeing the laboratory conditions on that date.”



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Paul Bracher (August 4, 2012 7:48 AM)
What a ridiculous statement from Charles Robinson. Are we to believe that principal investigators are not at all responsible for the safety conditions in their labs? Harran surely must share in the blame for this tragedy.
Kyle (August 8, 2012 2:34 AM)
It is amazing how nobody comments about the responsibility of the student. We are not talking about middle or high school level. Even undergraduate level. This was a graduate student. At some point people need to learn to take responsibility for their own actions. In a lab setting this means reading MSDS for materials you are working with and wearing the proper protective gear. Especially in the case of tert-butyllithium, this student should have choosen clothes made of natural fibers and worn a heavy lab coat. This was a tragedy without question. However it is very easy to place blame on the professor and the university. The only way accidents like these will be avoided is when individuals working in academia and industry start to take responsibility for the decisions they make. Instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them.
Alex Fox (August 9, 2012 12:19 PM)
To be clear, I believe she was a post-graduate student, not a graduate student. she held a bachelors degree but was not yet enrolled in a graduate program. This usually corresponds to a still rudimentary understanding of the proper methods for handling pyrophoric materials, especially when you consider that she was working in an organic lab, as opposed to an inorganic/organometallic lab where pyrophorics are much more the norm.
Kyle (August 10, 2012 10:05 PM)
I'm not saying that the school and the PI shouldn't share any if the blame in this situation. Obviously their lab safety measure were substandard at best. However, there comes a point where personal responsibility comes into play. From day one freshman chemistry lab students are given a safety presentation. This is usually followed by an exam covering said material. In order to further participate in lab they must pass the safety exam. This is true for every undergraduate lab class as well as new hires in the chemical industry. In those presentations they discuss awareness of your surroundings. This includes overall understanding of the equipment you are going to use as well as processes you will perform. Also included is the discussion on MSDS. MSDS are required by law to be displayed on site for employees to better understand the potential hazards of the materials they will come in contact with. Wether you are working with acetone, TCB or tert-butyllithium you always read the MSDS. Maybe at UCLA that is not discussed. That wouldn't surprising in a work environment where lab coats are considered optional when working with pyroforic materials. All I'm trying to say is that these discussions should also include the subject of personal responsibility. Yes your supervisor is responsible for your safety as well, but from I'm reading about their labs in general. They weren't very safe to begin with and that should have motivated her to take a closer look at what she was working on. The first and best person to have look out for you own well being is yourself.
Elijah (September 5, 2012 4:11 PM)
Still the emphasis about personal responsibility should be made by PI, ultimately it is up to him/her whether or not everyone in the lab follow the safety procedures. It shouldn't go both ways; they get all the credit for accomplishments and bear no responsibility if anything goes wrong.
Jyllian (August 8, 2012 12:23 PM)
@Kyle - Sangji wasn't a graduate student. She was a staff researcher who received her bachelor's degree less than a year before the fire. For more on her background and training for handling tert-butyllithium, see:
Mike (September 2, 2012 4:57 PM)
Interesting to see Harran's legal team resort to an ad hominem defense.

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