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.
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.”