The first ever criminal prosecution over an accident in a US academic laboratory was partially concluded on 27 July — but also took a bizarre twist. In a keenly anticipated agreement, the district attorney for Los Angeles, California, dropped charges against the governing body of the University of California (the UC regents). In turn, they accepted responsibility for laboratory conditions at the time of the death of 23-year-old Sheharbano (“Sheri”) Sangji at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), three-and-a-half years ago.
But the charges remain against Sangji’s supervisor, the organic chemist Patrick Harran. His defence team last week pulled out an extraordinary counter-claim (linked to here from Chemical & Engineering News), alleging that a key California state investigator on the case, Brian Baudendistel, committed murder as a teenager in 1985, and had misled authorities about his past. The defence argues that the case against Harran should be dropped; it has been postponed to 5 September while a judge digests the accusations.
Sangji died after a December 2008 lab fire at UCLA; she was using a syringe to draw the reactive chemical t-butyl lithium from a bottle when the pyrophoric liquid burst into flames, setting her clothes alight. She was not wearing a lab coat, suffered third-degree burns, and died in hospital 18 days later. UCLA has since paid around US$70,000 in fines and toughened its safety policies.
In December 2011, the Los Angeles district attorney charged Harran and the UC regents with three counts each of causing Sangji’s death by “willful violation of an occupational health and safety standard”. Now, the UC regents say they “acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated” at the time. Under the terms of the deal, which sees criminal charges dropped, they will also set up a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name for studying environmental law, maintain a lab-safety programme and require every principal investigator (PI) in the UC system to complete lab safety training. Each lab must also have written standard operating procedures for a long list of chemicals, signed off by the PI.
Sheri Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, told Chemical & Engineering News: “UCLA and the Regents have finally admitted that they wronged Sheri terribly”. Russ Phifer, former head of the American Chemical Society’s safety division and now executive director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists, says that in his opinion, “the UC Regents got a good deal. The monetary penalties are extremely modest; the biggest impact is from the admission of guilt,” he says. Neal Langerman, who runs the consulting company Advanced Chemical Safety, based in San Diego, California, feels that the chemical safety requirements are “powerful” and will “set a performance bar for research institutions across the country”.
Harry Elston, editor-in-chief of the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, says that UCLA’s plea agreement was more or less what he had expected. As for Patrick Harran, however, Elston thinks that the chemist could walk away with charges dropped or significantly reduced. That will depend on how the district attorney wants to proceed; the defence’s claim potentially shreds the credibility of the state investigator on whose report the district attorney had based most of the criminal charges, Elston notes.
This post was corrected on 30 July; the original post gave the incorrect name for California state investigator Brian Baudendistel.