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UCLA says it will fight ‘outrageous’ felony charges in fatal lab fire

December 28, 2011 |  1:57 pm

Sheri Sangji was killed in a lab fire at UCLA

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The statute of limitations was about to run out this week when prosecutors filed felony charges in connection with a fatal 2008 laboratory fire at UCLA, surprising university officials and prompting an unusually strong response from them.

Not only did they vow a vigorous defense of the "outrageous" charges against UC regents and chemistry professor Patrick Harran, but they also all but accused the Los Angeles County district attorney's office of sandbagging them since their last contact in October 2010.

"It's gamesmanship. It's illogical and it's deeply frustrating to us," Kevin Reed, UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs, said of charges that Harran and the regents willfully violated workplace safety standards, resulting in the death of staff research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.

Sangji, 23, was not wearing a protective lab coat when was severely burned in a lab fire on Dec. 29, 2008. She died 18 days later.

Jane Robison, a district attorney's spokeswoman, would not respond directly to UCLA's contentions, but defended the filing Tuesday, two days before the three-year statute of limitations was to expire.

"We carefully evaluated this case based on this evidence and concluded these were the appropriate charges," she said Wednesday.

In what chemical safety experts say is an unprecedented criminal case involving an academic laboratory, Harran and the UC regents are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. They are accused of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training.

Harran, 42, faces up to 4½ years in state prison, Robison said. He is out of town and will surrender to authorities when he returns, said his lawyer, Thomas O'Brien, who declined to comment further.

UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million for each of the three counts.

Reed described the incident as "an unfathomable tragedy," but not a crime.

Sangji's family and a former workplace safety prosecutor who has been assisting them for the last two years strongly disagree.

"The confluence of events that caused the painful tissue-searing third-degree burns Sheri suffered and which resulted in her death were not accidental events," said Frances Schreiberg, a pro bono lawyer who directed Cal/OSHA's criminal Bureau of Investigations in the early 1980s.

Sangji's family, led by her older sister Naveen, has been harshly critical of UCLA officials and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health's investigations. Naveen Sangji said Tuesday that the charges were a first step toward justice for her family.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Sheri Sangji graduated in 2008 from Pomona College in Claremont and planned to become a lawyer. While applying to law schools, she took a $46,000-a-year job in a lab run by Harran, a researcher with a rising reputation in organic chemistry.

Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second- and third-degree burns.

In May 2009, Cal/OSHA fined UCLA a total of $31,875 after finding that Sangji had not been trained properly and was not wearing protective clothing.

Two months before the fatal fire, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies in the same lab, according to internal investigative and inspection reports reviewed by The Times. Inspectors found that employees were not wearing requisite protective lab coats and that flammable liquids and volatile chemicals were stored improperly.

Corrective actions were not taken before the fire, the records showed.

In response to Sangji's death, UCLA instituted a host of safety improvements, including more rigorous lab inspections, more flame-resistant lab coats and enhanced training in the use of safety gear and the handling of air-sensitive chemicals. UCLA also established a Center for Lab Safety.

[For the record, 4:10 p.m. Dec. 28: A previous version of this post misspelled district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison's last name as Robinson.]


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Photo: Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji.

Credit: Los Angeles Times