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Plea negotations to continue in UCLA lab fatality case

February 2, 2012 | 12:17 pm


A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has postponed until March 7 the arraignment of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents on felony charges stemming from a fatal 2008 laboratory fire.

The delay, granted Thursday, will allow plea negotiations to continue between prosecutors and the defendants, who were charged in December with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in the death of Sheri Sangji, a staff research assistant.

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 over nearly half her body when the synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

Harran and the regents are accused of failing to correct unsafe working conditions in a timely manner, to require appropriate clothing and to provide proper chemical safety training.

Harran faces up to 4½ years in prison if convicted. The regents could be fined as much as $4.5 million.

UCLA officials have cast the incident as a tragic accident, saying Sangji was trained to perform the experiment that went awry. Sangji’s family, the union that represented her and workplace-safety advocates have called on the district attorney’s office to pursue prosecution of the felony charges.


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Photo: UCLA professor Patrick Harran, left, his attorney Thomas P. O'Brien, center, and Craig A. Moyer, attorney for the UC Board of Regents, appear in court for an arraignment, which was postponed. Both parties are charged in connection with a laboratory fire that killed a staff research assistant at UCLA in December 2008. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times