Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day five

With Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran appeared in court on Monday to continue a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. Harran faces charges stemming from a 2008 fire in his laboratory that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in 2009. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial.

The hearing started back in November, and here’s what happened so far:

  • Day 1: Complete testimony of a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, and a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body
  • Day 2: California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel began testifying. Baudendistel authored a report sent to the district attorney’s office recommending manslaughter charges in the case. The district attorney got partway through questioning Baudendistel.
  • Day 3: Chemical safety expert Neal Langerman began testifying. The district attorney completed questioning Langerman but the court ran out of time for cross examination.
  • Day 4: Baudendistel returned to the stand. The prosecution completed its direct questioning of Baudendistel and the defense started but did not complete cross examination.

Yesterday, Baudendistel returned to the stand again for cross examination by defense attorney Thomas O’Brien. O’Brien resumed by asking Baudendistel about a presentation Sangji made at a research symposium at Caltech. Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum objected; O’Brien argued in response that “the thrust of the case appears to be that Ms. Sangji had no experience in working in laboratories and I think her resume indicates that number one she does, and number two, this was part of the information that was made available to Prof. Harran in her application. … It goes to state of mind of my client that these information or background is available on her resume. That is in my client’s mind when deciding on the type of training that is necessary.”

After some discussion, rephrased questions, and another objection, the defense submitted a printout of the slides as an exhibit, but didn’t ask any questions specifically about the content of the slides.

O’Brien asked Baudendistel about the investigator’s conversation with Daniel O’Leary, Sangji’s adviser at Pomona College. The questions centered on Sangji’s work with flammable solvents and safety training she received at Pomona. O’Brien focused these questions on interview transcript excerpts that the defense previously used in a July motion to discredit Baudendistel’s report.

O’Brien turned to safety training that Sangji received at Norac Pharma, where she worked for a few months between graduating from Pomona and starting at UCLA. At Norac, she signed attendance sheets for at least two safety classes: “Assessing the Risk of Toxic Chemicals” and “Wheel of Misfortune: Grave Mistakes.” Baudendistel said that he did not ask anyone at Norac exactly what was covered in the safety training Sangji received. He testified that Norac provided Sangji with lab coats, goggles, safety shoes, a hard hat, and a respirator, and that there was no record of her returning the lab coats.

O’Brien then returned to a question he’d asked on the last day of Baudendistel’s previous testimony regarding whether there was a difference between safety standards and training in academic versus industrial labs. Baudendistel’s response was similar to what he said in November:

Baudendistel: The regulations are a consistent body of regulation that applies to the academic setting as well as to industry. It is apparent based on the investigation that I did that industry trains their people at a standard more compliant with the prevailing regulation and in the academic setting they do not.

O’Brien: Is there anything in the course of your investigation, Mr. Baudendistel, that led you to believe that Norac did not train their employees to the industry standard.
Baudendistel: I believe that Norac trained them to the standard applicable for whatever they were doing. … You’re using industry as a generic term that every particular company would be training the same way and that’s not correct. As to the applications that they do or processes that they do, yes the representation for Norac Pharma was that they trained their personnel to comply with the regulations.

O’Brien next asked Baudendistel about the posting for the job that Sangji filled at UCLA. The posting included these requirements:

  • Demonstrated ability to operate and manage a research laboratory
  • Demonstrated ability to order, handle, and manage laboratory supplies, chemicals, hazardous chemicals
  • Ability to oversee laboratory safety matters, including equipment, supplies, electrical, chemicals, laboratory procedures, and hazardous chemical disposal
  • Knowledge of current state, federal, OSHA, EHS, and other safety regulations

A printout of the posting had signatures from both Sangji and Harran.

Testimony then turned to the cover letter Sangji wrote when applying for the UCLA job and O’Leary’s recommendation letter for her. Through O’Brien’s questions, Baudendistel confirmed that Sangji wrote that she worked for three years as an undergraduate research assistant, and that her work at Norac exposed her to “practical aspects of organic synthesis,” such as scale up, Food & Drug Administration requirements, and client expectations. Baudendistel also testified that Harran told him that for a person of her age group, Sangji’s chemistry experience was “more than normal.”

After a break for lunch, O’Brien resumed questioning Baudendistel by showing him photos of a 100 mL bottle of tert-butyllithium. The attorney asked Baudendistel to confirm that the label contained warnings advising users that the chemical is spontaneously flammable in air and that users should wear suitable personal protective equipment. O’Brien asked Baudendistel if it was standard practice for chemists to read a bottle label before using the contents, and Baudendistel said yes.

The next part of O’Brien’s questioning seemed to be geared toward UCLA’s responsibilities for lab safety. O’Brien asked Baudendistel about UCLA’s chemical hygiene plan and who at the university was responsible for safety training. O’Brien seemed to want Baudendistel to say that university policy or Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) department representatives were solely responsible for training, but Baudendistel said that he’d need to review university documents and transcripts from his interviews for the details. Referring to a transcript of an interview with EH&S manager Bill Peck, Baudendistel testified that Peck told him the university did not have a general policy regarding handling of tert-butyllithium at the time of the incident, nor had Peck ever looked at any laboratory standard operating procedures for the chemical.

Then O’Brien asked about when Harran or his lab members received UCLA’s lab safety manual, as well as whether chemistry department personnel were required to read it. Baudendistel wasn’t sure about either.

O’Brien: Did you ever ask Mr. Peck whether principal investigators were provided copies of applicable regulations that they were supposed to follow?
Baudendistel: I don’t recall, again, using that specific terminology. I think I asked about whether there was an assessment done to know whether they were capable of safely operating the lab, but I may have actually asked the question, I don’t know, I’d have to review the interview.
O’Brien: Let me go to, since you mentioned… Was any assessment done by UCLA?
Baudendistel: No.
O’Brien: Did you receive any information in the course of investigation from any witnesses that said they provided Cal/OSHA regulations to Prof. Harran prior to this incident?
Baudendistel: No.

O’Brien: Did anyone ever tell you that they informed Prof. Harran that he was responsible for employee training and safety?
Baudendistel: No.

O’Brien: When you talked to Mr. Peck, you asked him whether or not there was any practice at UCLA for either the chemistry department or some other department to make an assessment of laboratory personnel to determine whether or not principal investigators had the requisite knowledge to comply with federal and state laws relevant to lab safety?
Baudendistel: I believe I asked a question in that regard. I don’t think that I used that specific language. I’d have to look at the interview transcript to make that assessment, but I did ask him if the university assessed the qualifications of a principal investigator relative to whether they could safely operate a lab before they were handed the keys to the lab…before they were allowed to operate a lab.
O’Brien: What was the response?
Baudendistel: The response was no.

O’Brien: Did you ever locate a witness in the course of the investigation who was employed by UCLA, Mr. Baudendistel, who told you that they trained PIs regarding laboratory safety?
Baudendistel: No.
O’Brien: Did you ever find anyone employed by UCLA, in the EH&S department, who said that they trained PIs in Cal/OSHA regulations that were applicable to their laboratories?
Baudendistel: No.
O’Brien: In fact, Mr. Peck told you during the interview that PIs were not given any type of training in those areas, correct?
Baudendistel: I believe that’s accurate, yes.
O’Brien: Dr. Gibson told you that there were no procedures in place where the university would verify whether a PI was appropriately trained in safe practice prior to undertaking work in the lab, correct?
O’Brien: I would have to look to see if Gibson said that.

O’Brien also brought up American Chemical Society documents that were supposedly part of the university’s chemical hygiene plan. It wasn’t clear which ACS documents those were, exactly, but O’Brien said that the documents state that faculty members may not be well versed in the handling of hazardous materials. Baudendistel testified that he didn’t recall what the documents said.

O’Brien then turned to Baudendistel’s interviews with postdoc Paul Hurley and graduate student Andrew Roberts. O’Brien asked about Hurley’s role as one of the senior people in the lab; Baudendistel said that Hurley identified himself as the “go-to guy” in the lab and would answer questions from others in the lab if he could. Roberts also told Baudendistel that Hurley provided additional safety training to lab members, Baudendistel said. Postdoc Hui Ding told Baudendistel that he “oftentimes” saw Hurley and Sangji working together, and Ding believed that the two were working on similar compounds. Hurley, however, told Baudendistel that he didn’t recall how he responded to an e-mail from Sangji asking for the procedure for handling tert-butyllithium, Baudendistel said.

Regarding whether lab members wore lab coats, graduate student Brian Blank told Baudendistel that he wore a lab coat all the time, in contrast to previous testimony in which Baudendistel said that other lab members wore lab coats irregularly.

Hum then asked Baudendistel about experiments Sangji performed in Harran’s lab prior to the accident. On Oct. 14, 2008, immediately after Sangji started work in the lab, Harran observed her technique. The procedure involved an air-sensitive reagent that was not pyrophoric, Baudendistel testified. Both that reagent and tert-butyllithium required transfer with an inert atmosphere but the risk was very different, the investigator said. Harran told Baudendistel that Sangji did the Oct. 14 procedure “perfectly.” Harran also said that Sangji clamped the bottle of the reagent she was working with and was wearing a lab coat. On Oct. 17, Sangji did a small-scale tert-butyllithium reaction, and Ding told Baudendistel that he observed Hurley working with Sangji that day, Baudendistel testified.

O’Brien moved on to asking Baudendistel about his interview with Mark Potyen, a research scientist at Sigma-Aldrich, which manufactured the tert-butyllithium used by Sangji. They went over Sigma-Aldrich technical bulletins AL-134 and AL-164, which cover handling air-sensitive and pyrophoric reagents, respectively. O’Brien also asked Baudendistel to recount Poyten’s description of the procedure Sigma-Aldrich uses to train people to use pyrophoric reagents. Baudendistel summarized the procedure as having the trainee watch Potyen, then Potyen would watch the trainee until he or she has the skill to do it alone. O’Brien asked if people need a certain number of months or years of background or training to use the compound, and Baudendistel said that it depends on the individual.

O’Brien also asked Baudendistel whether he’d looked into other manufacturers’ protocols for handling tert-butylithium, and Baudendistel said that he hadn’t found anything similar to Sigma-Aldrich’s AL-134.

In a separate line of questioning, O’Brien brought up a November 18, 2010 meeting that the district attorney had with Baudendistel and Steve Carr, who was described as a research scientist involved in water sampling at the Los Angeles County Department of Sanitation. O’Brien said that Carr received a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry in 1985. Baudendistel didn’t remember much from the meeting and said he didn’t take notes. O’Brien had notes prepared by someone else and in his questioning indicated that the notes said Carr believed someone with an undergraduate degree in chemistry wouldn’t need additional training in how to handle pyrophoric chemicals. The testimony for this part of the hearing involved a lot of sustained objections and at the end of the hearing on Tuesday, the judge excluded the notes from evidence.

O’Brien next asked Baudendistel about the October, 2008 inspection of Harran’s lab by chemical safety officer Michael Wheatley. O’Brien referred to an e-mail from Wheatley to Harran advising him that he would be inspecting the lab. Harran forwarded the e-mail to his group asking them to make sure the lab passed inspection. Problems flagged by the inspection included storage, and some items were fixed immediately, Baudendistel testified. Wheatley told Baudendistel that wearing lab coats was up to the discretion of lab workers and principal investigators, although Baudendistel also testified that Wheatley made conflicting statements regarding this issue. O’Brien produced a stockroom record showing that Sangji had at least requested a few pairs of safety glasses and nitrile gloves in different sizes, as well as a form signed by Sangji that she’d received the EH&S employee handbook. At the time of the incident, postdocs Hui Ding and Wei Feng Chen were wearing lab coats but Baudendistel wasn’t sure about other protective equipment. Sangji was not wearing a lab coat but there is no evidence whether she wore gloves or eye protection, Baudendistel said.

At that point, O’Brien said he had no further questions for Baudendistel. Deputy District Attorney Hum said he had questions for Baudendistel on redirect examination. Judge Lisa B. Lench scheduled the hearing to resume Tuesday morning.

Update: Here’s the recap to Tuesday’s testimony, day six of the hearing.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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1 Comment

  1. Now I’m curious what exactly Sangji learned in the courses at Norac. Great summary, Jyllian and Michael!