Chemistry professor Patrick Harran, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), will face trial on three counts of violating health and safety standards over the death, more than 4 years ago, of 23-year-old research assistant Sheharbano Sangji. A Los Angeles court judge ordered the trial on 26 April.
As far as we know, this is the first time a scientist has gone to trial over an accident in a US academic laboratory. When Harran was charged in 2011, Jim Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Massachusetts, said that the legal action was “a game-changer. It will significantly affect how people think about their responsibilities now that it’s clear there’s the possibility of going to jail”.
On 29 December 2008, Sangji was using a syringe to draw the reactive tert-butyllithium from a bottle when the pyrophoric liquid burst into flames, setting her clothes alight. She was not wearing a lab coat and suffered third-degree burns; she died in hospital 18 days later. UCLA has since paid around US$70,000 in fines and toughened its safety policies.
Harran could face 4.5 years in jail if he is convicted of charges that include failing to correct unsafe work conditions and to provide proper chemical safety training. UCLA chancellor Gene Block said that the accident was a tragedy, but was “not a crime. Patrick Harran is a talented and dedicated faculty member, and our support for him is unwavering”.
The governing body of the University of California (the UC regents) had also faced felony charges. But those were dropped last July in a plea agreement, whereby the UC regents set up a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name, accepted responsibility for laboratory conditions at the time of her death and boosted lab-safety training.