UCLA professor charged in fatal lab fire continues plea talks
Plea negotiations will continue in an unprecedented criminal case stemming from a 2008 lab fire that killed a UCLA staff research assistant and resulted in felony charges against a chemistry professor and the UC Board of Regents.
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge postponed until April 11 the arraignment of professor Patrick Harran and the regents. The defendants were charged in December with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.
Sangji, 23, was not wearing a protective lab coat on Dec. 29, 2008, when a plastic syringe she was using to transfer t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. She suffered extensive burns and died 18 days later.
Harran and the regents are accused of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training. Harran faces up to 4-1/2 years in prison if convicted. The regents could be fined $4.5 million.
It is believed to be the first such criminal case involving an academic lab death.
UCLA officials have cast it as a tragic accident, saying that Sangji was an experienced chemist and trained in the experiment that went awry -- contentions that contradict the findings of a Cal/OSHA criminal investigation.
Sangji's family and the union that represented her have urged the district attorney's office to prosecute the felony charges.
-- Kim Christensen
Photo: UCLA professor Patrick Harran. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times