The University of California on Friday settled three felony charges stemming from a fatal 2008 lab fire that led to the unprecedented filing of criminal charges against both the university and the professor in whose lab the accident occurred.
In the settlement with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, the university’s Board of Regents pledged to follow rigorous lab-safety standards, accepted responsibility for lab conditions that contributed to the death of a research assistant, and created a $500,000 endowed scholarship in her name. The assistant, Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, died soon after she suffered severe burns in a fire that ignited while she was working in the laboratory of Patrick G. Harran, a prominent organic-chemistry professor on the university’s Los Angeles campus.
Mr. Harran continues to face the same felony charges that the university settled—willful violations of three occupational-safety-and-health regulations—and the university said it would continue to support the professor and provide for his defense. In a court filing this week, Mr. Harran’s lawyers attacked the credibility of the state investigator who recommended that criminal charges be brought in the case. Mr. Harran has yet to be arraigned.
The accident occurred when Ms. Sangji was using a syringe to transfer from one container to another a chemical compound that ignites when it comes into contact with air. Ms. Sangji was not wearing a protective lab coat, and her synthetic sweater caught fire, causing burns that proved fatal 18 days later.
The state investigator concluded that Ms. Sangji’s death could have been prevented if she had been properly trained and made to wear protective clothing. The university has maintained she was fully trained and simply chose not to wear a lab coat. Even so, it has stepped up lab-safety measures in the years since the accident.
The university could have faced $4.5-million in fines if it had been convicted of the three felonies. Mr. Harran could be imprisoned for up to 4½ years if he is convicted on all three counts.