Case in Los Angeles may create a precedent for liability in research laboratory settings as well as for accidents in pathology or clinical laboratories
Clinical chemists, particularly those working in academic center medical laboratories and research labs, may be interested in the progress of a criminal case that was filed in California following the death of a 23-year-old research associate. She died in 2008 while conducting experiments in a chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Court proceedings are moving forward and the university has entered a settlement. That leaves the felony charges against the professor to be resolved. Some knowledgeable observers have suggested that the chemistry professor has been “thrown under the bus” by his academic institution. On that point alone, this case will be informational to professors of clinical chemistry, pathology, and medical laboratory medicine.
Criminal Charges Filed Against Chemistry Professor and UC Regents
On December 27, 2011, following an investigation of this lab accident, the District Attorney’s office for Los Angeles County filed three criminal counts against the Regents of the University of California and Patrick G. Harran, Ph.D., who is a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA. The defendants were charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in the death of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, who was the research assistant working in the chemistry research laboratory.
The Center for Public Integrity wrote that “Harran became the first American university professor to face a felony complaint in the wake of a worker death.” Experts believe this case may establish a precedent and that, from this point forward, professors supervising research projects may have criminal liability in certain types of accidents that occur during these activities.
For their part, both the UC Regents and Harran have publicly stated that Sangji’s death happened because of a tragic accident. They also stressed that the circumstances of this accident did not warrant criminal charges.
The accident happened on December 29, 2008, in an organic chemistry laboratory in UCLA’s Molecular Sciences Building. Reporter Kim Christensen of the Los Angeles Times described the accident in this way: “On December, 29, 2008, Sheharbano ‘Sheri’ Sangji, 23, was severely burned over nearly half of her body when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames during an experiment and ignited her clothing. Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died 18 days later. Her death raised questions about lab safety practices at UCLA and about Sangji’s training and supervision by professor Patrick Harran, a prominent researcher who joined the faculty in July 2008.”
Detailed Coverage of the Lab Accident by Chemical Engineering News
In its coverage of this story, Chemical Engineering News reported provided additional details about the accident and the events surrounding it. It wrote that “Sangji died on Jan. 16, 2009, from injuries sustained in a fire 18 days earlier in a UCLA chemistry laboratory. C&EN Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley has been reporting on the accident and its aftermath. As Kemsley detailed in her extensive story (C&EN, Aug. 3, 2009, page 29), Sangji was working with tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), a pyrophoric liquid. As she was drawing the liquid from a bottle into a syringe, the plunger came out of the syringe barrel, the tBuLi splashed on her clothes and set them on fire, and an open flask of hexane in the hood spilled and also caught fire. Sangji received severe burns on her torso, arms, and hands.
“Sangji had started in Harran’s lab in October 2008 and missed the lab safety training that UCLA at that time provided to students and others only at the beginning of every quarter. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat when the accident occurred. And Harran’s lab had been cited for safety violations in October 2008 that had not been entirely rectified at the time of the accident.”
Within days of Sangji’s death, Cal/OSHA (California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health) launched an investigation of this accident. CAL/OSHA cited UCLA for four violations and fined the university $31,875. Next, its Bureau of Investigations—responsible for reviewing every worker fatality in the state—issued a recommendation that both the professor overseeing the research laboratory and the UC regents “be charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony labor code violations for failing to maintain a safe working environment.”
Findings of the CAL/OSHA Investigator
In his report, investigator Brian Baudendistel wrote that the professor and the university “permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.” The violations listed below were issued. The three-count felony complaint and arrest warrant subsequently filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney centered upon violations of Section 6425(a):
December 23, 2009
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES
Brian Baudendistel, Senior Special Investigator
TYPE AND CHARGES: Industrial Fatality
CALIFORNIA PENAL CODE VIOLATION:
Section 192-Involuntary Manslaughter
CALIFORNIA LABOR CODE VIOLATION:
Section 6425(a) Willful violation resulting in death or permanent or prolonged impairment.
CALIFORNIA CODE OF REGULATIONS, TITLE 8:
Section 3203(b)(2)-Failure to maintain written training records relative to occupational exposure to hazardous chemical in laboratories (Cited as a Regulatory violation, Citation 1, Item 1).
Section 3203(a)(6)– Failure to establish, implant and maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention program; failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions in a timely manner (Cited as a Serious violation, Citation 2, Item 1).
Section 5191(f)(4)– Failure to provide chemical safety training to employees (Cited as a Serious violation, Citation 3, Item 1).
Section 3383(b)- Failure to require clothing appropriate for the work to be worn (Cited as a Serious Accident-Related violation, Citation 4, Item 1).
A settlement was announced between the district attorney and the UC Regents on July 27, 2012. Prosecutors dropped the criminal case after obtaining agreement from the UC Regents that a list of specific safety measures would be adopted. Also, the UC Regents are to establish a $500,000 scholarship fund in the name of Sangji.
Harran Arraigned on Three Criminal Charges Last Week
That leaves the felony charges against Harran to be resolved. At the time that the charges were announced, a spokesperson from the district attorney’s office stated that Harran faced up to 4½ years in state prison. Last Wednesday, on September 5, Harran was arraigned in Los Angeles Superior Court. He pled “not guilty.” The judge has set October 9 as the date for a preliminary hearing in the case.
What bears watching as this case moves toward a final resolution is what new legal precedents may result. It is the first time that criminal charges have been filed against a university and a professor following a laboratory accident and legal experts believe that it won’t be the last.
In the field of laboratory medicine, both clinical lab scientists and researchers frequently work with infectious agents. Thus, a lab accident can result in the serious illness or even death of a laboratory worker. Such was the case in the death of Richard Din, 25, last May. He is the lab worker who was conducting research with Neisseria meningitidis at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Din died of the disease, just 17 hours after leaving his lab and showing symptoms of meningitis. Genetic typing matched to the strain he handled daily as part of his research duties. Authorities have yet to disclose how Din was exposed to the bacteria.
However, the deaths of both Din and Sangji—along with the criminal charges filed in the Sangji case—are warnings that the laboratory safety bar is being raised, along with the penalties for not taking required safety precautions. For that reason, everyone associated with clinical laboratory medicine and anatomic pathology should take notice of these developments and take the necessary steps to maintain the highest level of safety in their clinical labs and research labs
Report of the California Department of Industrial Relations; Division of Occupational Safety and Health; Bureau of Investigations: Investigation Report relating to University of California at Los Angeles