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Felony Charges Sought in UCLA Lab Assistant Death

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office has filed felony charges against the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and chemistry professor Dr. Patrick Harran in connection to the January 2009 death of a university lab research associate.

On Dec. 29, 2008, 23-year-old Sheri Sangji sustained fatal second- and third-degree burns while working a lab research associate at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). According to a 2009 Cal/OSHA report, Sangji was working to transfer a t-Butyllithium, a highly reactive liquid reagent, when her syringe plunger became separated from the barrel. The reacting chemical spilled onto Sangji and caught fire, leaving her with burns over 43 percent of body. She died 18 days later.

The Cal/OSHA report claimed that UCLA and Harran did not provide Sangji with adequate safety training and did not ensure lab employees routinely wore proper PPE and lab coats. The report also revealed that Harran failed to utilize standard operating procedures for the reactant and failed to make certain that his laboratory personnel wore PPE. Additionally, the report indicated that Harran acknowledged he did not ask if Sangji was familiar with the reactant or discuss its hazards with her prior to the incident.

The felony charges were filed Dec. 27, 2011, for three counts of willful violations of an occupational health and safety standard. In a statement, UCLA vowed "to mount a vigorous defense against the outrageous charges."

"Since the time of the accident, UCLA has fully cooperated with [Cal/OSHA] and the district attorney's office," the university stated. "Cal/OSHA conducted an exhaustive investigation into the incident in 2009, which included interviews with UCLA officials and the examination of numerous documents shared by UCLA. That investigation resulted in fines, which were paid by the university, but ultimately found no willful violations on the part of UCLA."

Sheri Sangji's sister Naveen Sangji, along with the labor union that represented the Sangji and an organization of family members who have lost others to workplace fatalities, urged the Los Angeles County District Attorney to prosecute the case to the fullest extent of the law.

"The hazardous laboratory conditions at UCLA caused serious injuries to two students prior to this incident, but the administration took no corrective steps," said Naveen Sangj. "Furthermore, the professor in charge was told his laboratory was unsafe, but decided to ignore the warnings – and UCLA let him do so. Their unlawful decisions resulted in the death of an innocent 23-year-old girl – a daughter, a sister, closest of friends."

UCLA stressed that it has increased its laboratory inspections, taken steps to improve lab safety and has established "even more rigorous safety standards."

"The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree," the university concluded.

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