LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Los Angeles County prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the University of California and a UCLA professor in the death of a 23-year-old assistant who was killed in a lab fire.
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Professor Patrick Harran, A UCLA lab director and organic chemistry professor. Prosecutors said the 42-year-old could face up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted of three counts of occupational health and safety standards causing death.
The University of California faces the same charges and could be slapped with $5 million in fines if found guilty, according to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office.
The charges stem from the December 2008 lab accident that killed Sheharbano “Sheri’ Sangji. She was severely burned over nearly half her body when an air-sensitive experiment exploded, igniting her clothing.
Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died 18 days later.
The 23-year-old Pakistani native had just graduated from Pomona College in Claremont and was applying to law school when she took a research job at UCLA with Prof. Farran.
Three years after her death, the woman’s family has raised questions about UCLA lab practices, training and supervision.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health [Cal/OSHA] had fined UCLA more than $31,000 in May 2009, after finding that Sangji had not been trained properly and had not been provided with a protective lab coat. State regulators found three “serious” violations of workplace safety laws.
Cal/OSHA also cited UCLA for not addressing deficiencies noted in an internal safety inspection two months before the fatal fire in Harran’s organic chemistry lab, including a finding that workers were not wearing lab coats.
UCLA issued a statement Tuesday saying it “intends to mount a vigorous defense against the outrageous charges.”
“Since the time of the accident, UCLA has fully cooperated with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the District Attorney’s Office,” the statement said.
“Following a meeting with the district attorney in October 2010, UCLA has not been contacted by the district attorney or received any requests for documents or interviews until being notified about pending charges two days before Christmas.
“The district attorney’s decision to file charges today is truly baffling and directly contradicts the findings of the state agency responsible for evaluating workplace safety.
“Since the accident, UCLA has dramatically increased the number of laboratory inspections and become a leader in the field and other universities and research organizations look to the center as a comprehensive resource on lab safety. The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree.”
Several calls made by KCAL9 News to Prof. Harran and the Sangji family were not returned.