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Video: The People v. Professor Harran

A court case in Los Angeles casts doubt over how safe thousands of labs at UCLA really are. A chemistry professor and the UC regents are facing felony charges in the death of Sheri Sangji, a young research associate who died after a chemical fire. The university had been cited for previous occupational health and safety violations, but it’s the first time a professor in the U.S. has been charged with a felony for the death of a worker. This case will have consequences not only for UCLA, but for every campus lab in the country.

This story is a joint project with the Center for Public Integrity.


Reporter Adithya Sambamurthy: Sheri Sangji, a young research associate, died of severe burns from a chemical lab fire at UCLA nearly four years ago. She was only 23.

Naveen Sangji (Sheri Sangji’s sister): Sheri was working in a laboratory in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world, and there should be no safer place for someone to go to work. 

Reporter: Sangji was working for Patrick Harran, a highly recruited, hard-charging professor in the chemistry department. 


This story is a joint project with the Center for Public Integrity.

On Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji was here in Harran’s lab. She was working with this bottle of t-Butyllithium, a highly volatile chemical that ignites when simply exposed to air. In a flash, she caught on fire. Sangji was transferring the chemical using a syringe and had accidentally pulled out the plunger.

Naveen Sangji: When I arrived at the hospital, almost 50 percent of her body was severely burned. Her hands were burned down all the way to tendon. Her abdominal wall had been burned off. She had third-degree burns to her neck.

Reporter: She died 18 days later.

Investigators from the state occupational health and safety agency, Cal/OSHA, questioned professor Harran in a deposition obtained exclusively for this report. 

Investigator (in audio recording): When Sheri arrived, do you know if she received any general lab safety training from the university?

Harran (in audio recording): I don’t believe she received generalized safety training. I believe my assistant was told that it was not offered for her category, per se.

Reporter: They determined that Sheri Sangji had not been taught how to work safely with the dangerous chemical. 

Investigator (in audio recording): Did you ever discuss the characteristics of t-Butyllithium with Sheri?

Harran (in audio recording): No, not of t-Butyllithium specifically, no.

Investigator (in audio recording): Did you have any fire-resistant clothing available for employees to use when handling t-Butyllithium?

Harran (in audio recording): Not fire-resistant clothing. No.

Reporter: Based on Cal/OSHA findings, professor Harran is facing three felony counts. It’s the first time a professor in the United States has been charged with a felony for the workplace death of an employee. 

Ellen Widess: We're trying to send a clear message not only to the employers, but also to the industry generally that this behavior will not be tolerated.

Reporter: Ellen Widess oversees Cal/OSHA and its Bureau of Investigations, which is empowered to build criminal cases and recommend felony charges.

Widess: Making criminal referrals is absolutely important for those kinds of cases where there is such employer culpability and the injury is serious. In most states, penalties are so minimal that they do become a cost of doing business.

Reporter: Nationally, causing a workplace death or serious injury is at most a misdemeanor. California is taking a harder line.

Professor Harran did not respond to interview requests, but he defended himself in a 2009 letter to the Los Angeles Times.

Reporter (reading from Harran’s letter): “Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. … Sheri's death resulted from a tragic accident.”

Reporter: UCLA and the UC regents are also named in the felony complaint. They, too, declined to comment. But in a written statement, the UCLA chancellor vowed to support professor Harran and fight what he called unwarranted criminal charges.

Jim Kaufman: I think this is a landmark case.

Reporter: Jim Kaufman is a leading lab safety expert.

Kaufman: This was a tsunami throughout academia that criminal charges were being filed against the university. I think that good things are going to come as a result of this and that Sheri Sangji’s death will not be in vain.

Reporter: Since Sangji’s death, UCLA has founded the Center for Laboratory Safety and says in this video that it will raise safety standards in academic labs.

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James Gibson (executive director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, in safety video): The chancellor has made it clear that he wants to see UCLA as best in class. And as a result of that, we’re really putting a lot of energy and effort into sharing our experiences with other universities.

Reporter: The university has paid Cal/OSHA fines related to the Sangji accident and for other violations they uncovered. UCLA is contesting another fine for not reporting a previous lab accident that seriously burned a graduate student.

The Harran case is being closely watched by lab workers at other California campuses, which have experienced at least seven chemical accidents since Sheri Sangi’s death. And it seems to be having an impact, according to the union that represents lab workers.

Nino Maida (chief steward for UPTE Lab Workers Union at UC San Francisco): Before this case, it took us months, and sometimes over a year, to get any safety grievance fixed. Now it’s, “Don’t bother filing a grievance, Nino, just give me a call.” Of course, we want to do everything possible to ensure safety here at UCSF.

They’re afraid, and rightly so, justly so.

Reporter: Meanwhile, Sheri’s sister, Naveen Sangji, continues flying to Los Angeles from her home in Boston to attend every court hearing for Patrick Harran. She will be in court again tomorrow.

Naveen Sangji: Incidents like these don’t just happen; they happen because several processes are very wrong. Sheri should not have suffered that way.

Outro: If professor Harran and the UC regents do not agree to a plea agreement tomorrow and the judge does not defer the case again, they will be going to trial. If found guilty, professor Harran could spend up to four and a half years in state prison and UCLA could be fined more than a million dollars.

Reporters: Jim Morris & Adithya Sambamurthy 
Producer: Adithya Sambamurthy
Editor: David Ritsher
Camera: Adithya Sambamurthy, Monica Lam, Derek Lartaud, Ryan Loughlin, Isabelle Carbonell
Sound: Joel Van Haren, Adithya Sambamurthy, Monica Lam
Production Assistant: Kerri Connolly

Filed under: Higher Ed


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