LOS ANGELES (AP) — A University of California, Los Angeles chemistry professor will face a rare prosecution when he stands trial for workplace safety violations in the death of a 23-year-old research assistant, who died of burns from a lab fire, according to county prosecutors.
Judge Lisa Lench on Friday ordered 43-year-old Patrick Harran to be tried on three felony counts of violating workplace safety standards in the death of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, according to a district attorney’s statement.
Sangji was in Harran’s organic chemistry laboratory Dec. 29, 2008, when she transferred a highly flammable material without wearing a protective lab coat.
Sangji was burned over nearly half of her body when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames and ignited her clothes. She died of her injuries 18 days later.
Harran is due for arraignment May 9. The university and his defense maintain it was a tragic accident that doesn’t merit criminal charges.
“The accident that took Sheri Sangji’s life was a terrible tragedy for our campus, and I can’t begin to imagine the devastation to her family. We must remember, however, that this was an accident, not a crime,” UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block said Friday in a statement, after the trial was announced.
Block pledged to support Harran, and said UCLA has been working to enhance lab safety since the accident.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the university nearly $32,000 in May 2009 after finding Sangji hadn’t been properly trained and should have been wearing a protective lab coat.
An expert witness testified in November that the accident was predictable and preventable under questioning by prosecutors in a preliminary hearing.
Neal Langerman, a chemist with a consulting practice in advanced chemical safety, said Sangji should not have been handling the chemical tert-Butyllithium without specific training and study of instructions provided by its manufacturer.
He said Sangji, who had a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, never worked with the chemical until she came to UCLA.
Harran is due for arraignment May 9.
If convicted Harran faces up to 4½ years in prison.