Court charges UCLA professor in accidental death of lab technician, reach deal with Regents

Damian Dovarganes/AP

UCLA organic chemistry professor, Patrick Harran appears for his arraignment at Los Angeles Superior Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

A judge is allowing criminal charges to go forward against a UCLA professor in the 2008 death of a 23-year-old lab technician, Sheri Sangji. Charges against the UC Regents were blocked.

Sangji was working with flammable liquid in professor Patrick Harran’s lab when it caught fire on exposure to air, burning half her body. She died 18 days later.

It is highly unusual for a professor to face criminal charges in a workplace accident. But a Cal/OSHA investigation into the deadly lab fire indicates that Harran allowed the lab technician to work in a way that exposed her to a "serious and foreseeable risk of injury or death."

Harran’s attorneys have tried to discredit the investigator who wrote that report, saying that he was involved in a murder as a teenager.

A representative from the L.A. County district attorney’s office responded to that by pointing out that Cal/OSHA is not on trial in this case.

The case prompted UCLA to create a Center for Laboratory Safety — and to codify safety standards for lab work.

The UC Regents have agreed to create comprehensive safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship fund in Sanji’s name.

Harran’s next court appearance is scheduled in September.

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