UCLA Professor Charged in Fatal Lab Fire Settles to Avoid Prosecution

If the prosecution had gone forward, the chemistry professor would have faced up to four and a half years in state prison

Los Angeles County prosecutors on Friday agreed to defer the case against a UCLA chemistry professor who faced felony charges in connection with a 2008 lab fire that killed a 23-year-old research assistant.

The fire happened on Dec. 29, 2008, in the lab of professor Patrick Harran, killing Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, 23.

Sangji was not wearing a protective lab coat when the sensitive chemical she was handling burst into flames. She was burned on nearly half her body when her clothes caught on fire and died 18 days later.

Harran was charged with four felony counts of willful workplace safety violations in connection with the fire.

In a settlement with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, the case against Harran may be dismissed by prosecutors in five years if he carries out all the conditions of the agreement.

The requirements include 800 hours of non-teaching community service at UCLA’s hospital or health services center and teaching a summer organic chemistry course “to help inner city high school graduates prepare for college level organic chemistry,” the DA’s office said in a statement. He must also pay a $10,000 fine.

If the prosecution had gone forward, Harran would have faced up to four and a half years in state prison.

According to the statement, Harran, 44, acknowledged to the court on Friday that he was "ultimately responsible for the safety of personnel in my laboratory."

The victim’s family objected to the settlement and wanted Harran to go to trial or plea in connection with the charges, City News Service reported. Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, said at the courthouse that her family "has to forever live with the memory of Sheri's suffering."

An investigation by Cal/OSHA in May 2009 found that Sangji had not been properly trained and should have been wearing protective clothing. Cal/OSHA fined UCLA $31,875.

Harran and the UC Board of Regents were both charged in 2011 with violating the state labor code. The charges against the UC Regents were dropped in 2012.

UCLA said in statement that Harran and and the school "have agreed not to deny responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated at the time of the accident."

In the years following the lab fire, UCLA worked to improve lab safety, including establishing a Center for Laboratory Safety in 2011.

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