A chemistry professor must stand trial on felony charges stemming from a 2008 laboratory fire that killed a 23-year-old research assistant, a state trial judge has ordered.

Patrick Harran, 48, who works at the University of California at Los Angeles, was scheduled for arraignment on May 9 on three felony counts of violating occupational health and safety standards. The case appears to be the first of its kind in the country involving felony charges precipitated by a university chemistry lab accident. If convicted, Harran faces 4 1/2 years in prison.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa Lench issued her April 26 ruling following a six-day preliminary hearing in November and December, the Los Angeles County, Calif., district attorney’s office announced.

"The tragic laboratory accident that occurred in December 2008 was just that — an accident," said Harran’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien of Paul Hastings in Los Angeles. "We are confident that a jury, when presented with all of the facts, will vindicate Professor Harran."

The research assistant, Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, died after suffering severe burns in a fire in Harran’s organic chemistry lab on December 29, 2008. At the time, she was transferring 1.8 ounces of flammable t-butyl lithium, which spilled when her syringe broke and the chemical ignited in the air. Sangji, who was wearing a synthetic-fiber sweater but no protective lab coat, died 18 days later.

Prosecutors originally charged Harran and UCLA on December 27, 2011. On July 27, the University of California Board of Regents reached an agreement to resolve three criminal-negligence counts allegding that the university failed to train or supervise Sangji in the proper handling of such chemicals, including the need to wear appropriate clothing, or implement an injury-prevention program.

The university agreed to implement additional safety measures — for example, mandating use of protective lab coats and safety equipment as standard operating procedure for dealing with hazardous materials. It also established a $500,000 environmental law scholarship in Sangji’s name that will be available at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

In 2009, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued a $31,875 fine against the regents following an administrative investigation into the accident.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.