WIKIMEDIA, StockMonkeys.comPatrick Harran, a University of California, Los Angeles, organic chemist, will stand trial in a California court for the death of his research assistant, Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, who died 4 years ago, at the age of 23, when she caught fire in the lab. Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a highly reactive chemical, in the lab on December 29, 2008, when the volatile liquid contacted air and burst into flames, setting her clothes ablaze. She suffered third-degree burns and died after spending 18 days in the hospital.
Sangji was not wearing a flame-retardant lab coat, which contributed to her polyester sweater catching fire. In 2011, the Los Angeles district attorney charged Harran with 3 counts of “willful violation of an occupational health and safety standard.” It was the first time that a criminal prosecution had ever resulted from an accident in a US academic lab, and Harran is the first scientist to go to trial under such circumstances.
UCLA, which has been fined and threatened with similar charges, is standing by Harran. “The accident that took Sheri Sangji's life was a terrible tragedy for our campus, and I can’t begin to imagine the devastation to her family,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block said in a statement released on Friday (April 26). “We must remember, however, that this was an accident, not a crime. Patrick Harran is a talented and dedicated faculty member, and our support for him is unwavering.”
According to Nature, a date for Harran’s trial has not yet been set. But if convicted of the charges against him, Harran could face 4.5 years in jail.