Sunday, January 15, 2012

UCLA Professor and UC System Face Felony Charges In Connection With 2008 Fatal Lab Fire

A UCLA chemistry professor and the University of California are facing criminal charges in connection with a laboratory fire that killed a worker Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji three years ago. Sangji, 23, was transferring a highly-flammable chemical from one container to another when her syringe broke, exposing the chemical to the air. It erupted in flames, igniting her sweater and giving her burns so severe that she died 18 days later.

Both UCLA safety inspectors and Cal-OSHA investigators found serious safety flaws in the laboratory — the most obvious flaw was that Sangji should have been trained to wear a lab coat at all times. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office believes that these violations rise to the level of criminal behavior. It has charged Patrick Harran and the UC regents with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, according to the Los Angeles Times . Harran could face 4 1/2 years in prison under these charges. UCLA could face $1.5 million in fines. It has already paid out $31,875 because Cal-OSHA found that Sangji had not been trained properly.

Two months before the fire, UCLA safety inspectors found serious flaws in the same laboratory where Sangji died. It found that employees were not wearing lab coats and flammable liquids were stored improperly — and those deficiencies hadn't been corrected at the time of her death, the Times reported. But the UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs said that the circumstances of Sangji's death shouldn't rise to the level of criminality.

"This isn't justice," Kevin Reed told the Times. "What happened in December 2008 was a tragedy, an unfathomable tragedy. It was not a crime."

Sangji's sister Naveen Sangji has been critical of both the UCLA and Cal-OSHA investigations. She told the Times that she hopes the criminal case goes to trial so her family will have the chance to speak out about the circumstances leading to her sister's death.