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Safety

Lab Death Legal Defense Cost University Of California Nearly $4.5 Million

Sum covered six years of legal bills for both UC and chemistry professor Patrick Harran

by Jyllian Kemsley
October 30, 2014 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 92, ISSUE 44

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Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times
Harran (right) sat with his attorney, Thomas O’Brien, in court on June 20.
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Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times
Harran (right) sat with his attorney, Thomas O’Brien, in court on June 20.

The University of California paid $4.5 million to outside law firms to defend itself and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran from felony charges of labor code violations relating to the death of a staff researcher.

The numbers were released by the UC Office of the President in response to a public records request filed by C&EN.

Researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was using a syringe to transfertert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air, when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel. Sangji was not wearing a flame-resistant lab coat, and her clothes caught fire. She died from her injuries on Jan. 16, 2009. She was 23 years old and had received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Pomona College in May 2008.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against UC and Harran on Dec. 27, 2011. The charges cited failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees.

UC defense costs: $1.3 million

Harran defense costs: $3.1 million

UC’s 2013–14 operating budget: $6.6 billion

Estimated cost to outfit all UC lab workers with personal protective equipment: $4 million

SOURCE: UC Office of the President

UC settled its case with the district attorney on July 27, 2012. UC agreed to accept responsibility for the laboratory conditions that led to Sangji’s death, establish a law scholarship in her name, and follow a specified lab safety program for four years. In exchange, the district attorney will drop the charges.

Harran went through a preliminary hearing before finally reaching an agreement with the district attorney on June 25 this year. Harran agreed to accept responsibility for lab conditions, pay $10,000 to the burn center that treated Sangji, and complete multiple forms of community service. The district attorney will drop the charges once the five-year agreement is fulfilled.

UC paid law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which represented the UC governing body in the case, a total of $1.3 million from Dec. 29, 2008, through Aug. 31, 2014. UC paid the firm Paul Hastings, which represented Harran, $3.1 million. UC paid a third firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson, $85,000.

“We defended ourselves and our faculty member as was our right and obligation, using funds in the University of California’s systemwide self-insurance program,” says UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea.

“Had UCLA spent even a tiny fraction of this money and effort on laboratory and chemical safety training and fire-resistant gear when the two graduate students got burned in their labs, before Sheri’s injuries, Sheri might still be with us today,” says Naveen Sangji, Sheri’s sister.

On the prosecution side, the District Attorney’s Office “never calculates the amount of each prosecution,” says spokeswoman Jane Robison. “Our attorneys, unlike private attorneys, are not paid by the hour.”

 


CASE TIMELINE

Sheri Sangji’s death in 2009 triggered worker-safety citations and felony charges

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Comments
Simon (October 31, 2014 12:41 PM)
Some students with insufficient lab training should not be allowed to work in a sophisticated and high demanding chemical lab. They overestimated their abilities to adapt to a new and risky environment without senior labmates' side watching.

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