The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) last week sent its findings in the investigation of the death of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry researcher Sheri Sangji to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office will now review the case and decide whether to file charges against the university or any of its employees.
Sangji, a research assistant in the lab of chemistry professor Patrick Harran, died a year ago after being badly burned in a laboratory fire. Cal/OSHA investigated the incident and subsequently fined UCLA $31,875 for laboratory safety violations related to Sangji’s death.
As is standard practice in the case of a workplace death, Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations reviewed the case to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of criminal violations of the California Labor Code to warrant referring the case to the DA’s office.
Now, “the prosecutor must evaluate the evidence to determine if a crime has been committed and, if so, if the evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to show that the suspect is guilty of the crime,” says LA County DA’s office spokesperson Sandi Gibbons. “Reviews can take weeks or months, depending on the amount of evidence and if follow-up investigation is needed.”
Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza told C&EN that the agency had referred Sangji’s case to the DA’s office. Gibbons confirmed that the DA’s office received the evidence from Cal/OSHA and is reviewing it.
UCLA, however, “has been assured by Cal/OSHA’s lead investigator, as recently as today, that the investigation is ongoing and that no decision has been made,” says UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton. “UCLA strongly disagrees with any pursuit of criminal charges. The campus believes that Ms. Sangji’s death resulted from a tragic accident involving no willful negligence and was unrelated to the record-keeping, inspections and follow-ups that have been the focus of Cal/OSHA and accounts in the news media.”
Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, has previously said that her family would like the district attorney’s office to get involved, because they felt that the Cal/OSHA and university investigations were not thorough enough. “We want to know who was responsible and who failed in their duties to make sure Sheri was safe at work,” Naveen said.
According to Cal/OSHA policies & procedures, the laws generally considered in cases such as this are Labor Code Sections 6423 and 6425. The sections outline penalties for violations of occupational safety & health standards that include prison time and/or hefty fines.