The University of California has reached an agreement with prosecutors in Los Angeles that settles groundbreaking criminal charges stemming from a 2008 chemistry lab fire at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Under the deal, the university Board of Regents agreed to implement additional safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship in the name of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, the 23-year-old research assistant who died on Jan. 16, 2009, 18 days after a chemical she was handling spilled, starting the fire.
The scholarship will be available within the year at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, for students of environmental law.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba approved the deal on July 27. The case appears to have been the first of its kind in the nation involving felony charges precipitated by a university chemistry lab accident.
An attorney for the regents, Craig Moyer, chairman of the land, environment & natural resources department at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, did not return a call for comment.
UC Chancellor Gene Block issued a formal statement: “We have worked to meet this challenge and today the Los Angeles County District Attorney has accepted our ongoing commitment to lab safety and agreed to dismiss all charges against the Regents of the University of California.”
He continued: “Long before these charges were ever filed, UCLA began working to enhance lab safety on our own campus and established the now nationally-recognized UC Center for Laboratory Safety. We realized it was critical that we do everything possible to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again — and that we help spread the message of lab safety throughout labs worldwide.”
The agreement, signed by board officials, states: “The effect of a criminal conviction would negatively impact the University of California as a whole, including the campuses of UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Merced, UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, and many thousands of students, employees, and indirectly, the public, including potentially debarment, loss of funding, loss of licenses and exclusion from areas of research vital to public health, public safety, and national security.”
On December 29, 2008, Sangji was wearing a synthetic sweater but no protective lab coat while transferring 1.8 ounces of flammable t-butyl lithium at UCLA’s organic chemistry lab. The plastic syringe broke, and the chemical burst into flames upon contact with the air.
In 2009, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued a $31,875 fine against the regents following an administrative investigation into the incident.
The district attorney’s office filed criminal charges on December 27, 2011, against the regents and Patrick Harran, the chemistry professor who was supervising Sangji at the time of the accident. The regents faced three criminal negligence counts alleging that the university failed to train or supervise Sangji in the proper handling of such chemicals, including the need to wear appropriate clothing, and failed to implement an injury prevention program.
Under the agreement, the regents agreed to implement safety measures that include the proper handling of flammable chemicals and to require the use of protective lab coats and safety equipment as standard operating procedure when dealing with hazardous chemicals.
Harran, 43, against whom felony charges remain pending, faces more than four years in prison if convicted.
Harran’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien, the former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and a partner at Paul Hastings, continued to maintain that what happened to Sangji was accidental. “Sheri’s death was tragic. But it was an accident. It was not a crime,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement.
He noted that Sangji held a chemistry degree from Pomona College. “She had experience as a professional lab technician. She received safety training multiple times throughout her academic and professional career. She had been published in chemistry journals, and there is no question that she was well qualified for her position.”
O’Brien also criticized the investigation by the district attorney’s office, noting that state investigators fo und “no willful violations of health or safety laws.”
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