Three years ago, a 23-year-old University of California chemist was severely burned over nearly half of her body in a laboratory chemical fire. Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat during the experiment, died of her injuries 18 days later. The case brought into questions about lab safety practices at UCLA and about Sangji’s training and supervision.
Last Tuesday, in what is thought to be an unprecedented case, felony charges have been brought against professor Patrick Harran and the UC regents by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The charges include failing to correct unsafe working conditions and to provide proper chemical safety training.
UCLA issued a statement calling the charges “outrageous” and “appalling;” their vice chancellor for legal affairs, Kevin Reed, says the incident was “a tragedy…not a crime.” Two months prior to Sangji’s death, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen safety violations, which were not corrected before the fatal fire. The tragedy led to safety improvements at UCLA and focused a laser on the issue of academic laboratory safety nationwide.
If convicted, Harran faces up to 4-1/2 years in state prison; UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million for each of three counts. By all reports, this is the first time a university has been criminally charged for an academic lab accident.
Are the charges warranted? Was this a preventable tragedy? Who should be held liable?
Kevin Reed, Vice Chancellor for legal affairs, UCLA
Russ Phifer, Executive Director, National Registry of Certified Chemists
Laurie Levenson, Professor of Law, Loyola Law School