A Los Angeles County judge has dismissed criminal charges against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran. The charges stem from the death nearly 10 years ago of staff researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after she was burned in a fire in Harran’s lab.
Harran faced four felony charges of violating the California labor code relating to the fatal fire. In 2014, before the case went to trial, Harran reached a settlement agreement with the district attorney’s office to drop the charges after five years if he met a set of conditions.
On Sept. 6, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli, who approved the original deal, granted a request by Harran’s attorney to dismiss the case nine months before the agreement was set to end. Prosecutors objected. Nevertheless, “Lomeli determined that Harran had satisfied all of the terms and conditions of the five-year deferred prosecution agreement,” says district attorney’s office spokesperson Greg Risling.
At the time of the 2008 fire, Sangji was working with tert-butyl lithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. She was drawing the chemical from a bottle into a syringe when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel. She was not wearing a lab coat and was burned on her torso, arms, and hands. She died on Jan. 16, 2009, 18 days after the accident.
In response, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office charged Harran and the Board of Regents of the University of California system in 2011 with felony labor code violations. The charges alleged that Harran and UC Regents failed to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failed to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failed to provide chemical safety training to employees.
If convicted of the charges, Harran faced up to four-and-a-half years in state prison and the university faced fines of as much as $4.5 million.
Harran’s 2014 settlement agreement mandated that he complete multiple forms of community service and pay a $10,000 fine. At the time of the agreement, Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum said that the settlement was likely similar to any sentence that Harran might have received had he been convicted. “There was no way that any judge was going to punish him by sending him to jail,” Hum said.
In 2014, Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, called the agreement “barely a slap on the wrist.”
The UC Regents also reached an agreement with the district attorney’s office in 2012. In exchange for the district attorney dropping the charges, the Regents agreed to accept responsibility for the safety conditions that contributed to the fire, as well as establish an environmental law scholarship at UC Berkeley in Sangji’s name and to maintain for four years a laboratory safety program for chemistry and/or biochemistry departments at all of its campuses. Most of the program required the UC system to follow the labor code it was charged with breaking.
As of October 2014, UC had paid $4.5 million to outside law firms to defend itself and Harran.