Chemist to Court Over Assistant’s Death

A University of California, Los Angeles, researcher could face more than four years in jail for the death of his research assistant in a lab accident.

By | April 30, 2013

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.

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Avatar of: JToeppen


Posts: 37

April 30, 2013

Any "willful violation of an occupational health and safety standard" is no accident.  There are legal and professional responsiblities for both individuals and institutions.  Institutions are not people and they can't be sent to prison.  Responsible investigators (name on door of lab for contact  in emergency & signer of documents) may be held responsible for the actions and innactions of their own or the LLC that they work for.  If basic OSHA requirements are not meet the LLC is in a limited amount of trouble (nothing personal). 

Ethics, incompetence, and indifference are separate topics.

It is unreasonable for anyone with knowledge of such materials to not exercise basic safety protocols.  Any organization not using MSDSs or creating a safe environment can be held accountable for lack of training.  "Deciders" must be trained and accountable, but those at the bottom are more likely to personally become victims of coprorate policies.

Did ethics and compassion mean something once, or was that just an illusion?


Avatar of: raymond ffoulkes

raymond ffoulkes

Posts: 4

April 30, 2013

Yes. An accident, not a crime.

Society loses the notion of an accident at its great peril.

Avatar of: T S Raman

T S Raman

Posts: 51

May 3, 2013


What are the rules or law regarding "contributory negligence" in this situation? Is a Researh Assistant (or graduate student) expected to be fully aware of the hazards involved, and is not the scientist under whom he or she may be working expected to teach the person about the dangers and make sure he or she has fully understood and is competent enough to do the work?


I am a retired scientist in India, and I wish similar safety rules were in existence here and strictly enforced. Most labs in India are characterized by near total lack of safety awareness or knowledge, absence of safety equipment, complete nonchalance, and complete failure to use even the available safety equipment. If internationally accepted law is applied here, many "top" scientists would end up behind bars. The situation works strongly against knowledgeable and careful scientists, and gives a sort of spurious advantage to those who would rush in "where angels fear to tread".

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