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

With Michael Torrice. If you find typos, mea culpa. This is a long post and we did our best.

Testimony concluded on Tuesday in the preliminary hearing against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. Harran faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from burns sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

Witnesses called to testify over the course of the multi-day hearing included a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body, a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator whose report led to the charges, and a chemical safety expert. The recap of Monday’s testimony includes a summary of testimony heard on previous days.

On Tuesday: redirect questioning of Cal/OSHA investigator Brian Baudendistel and cross examination and redirect questioning of safety expert Neal Langerman.

Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum brought Baudendistel back to the stand to ask a few more questions, following up on points made by defense attorney Thomas O’Brien.

Under questioning by O’Brien, Baudendistel had testified that Sangji was issued five lab coats when she worked for Norac Pharma, and there was no evidence that she’d returned them. Hum asked whether there was any evidence Sangji had not returned them. Baudendistel said no, that there was no reason to believe that Sangji had kept the coats, and that no one was billed for the coats.

Referring to a document O’Brien provided that listed UCLA chemistry stockroom requests, Hum asked if there was any documentation that Sangji had requested a lab coat. Baudendistel said no. Hum also asked about the dates that others in Harran’s lab had requested lab coats. There were requests for two lab coats on Jan. 5, 2009, and one on Jan. 8, 2009, all on days after Sangji was injured.

Hum next asked Baudendistel to clarify what Daniel O’Leary, Sangji’s undergraduate research adviser, had told him about Sangji’s contributions to two J. Am. Chem. Soc. papers on which she is an author. Baudendistel testified that O’Leary told him Sangji analyzed compounds in the paper and did not do any benchwork. O’Leary also said that none of the work involved pyrophorics. Baudendistel also quoted from the interview transcript, in which O’Leary said, “She wouldn’t have had any, any experience in my lab working with something as, as nasty as t-butyl lithium.” O’Leary also told Baudendistel that the safety training she received at Pomona was very general lab training.

O’Brien also asked Baudendistel questions regarding whether anyone had informed Harran of his responsibilities regarding lab safety. In follow-up questioning by Hum, Baudendistel testified that UCLA Environment, Health, & Safety manager Bill Peck said that lab principal investigators were responsible. Hum asked Baudendistel about the responsibilities of principal investigators as outlined in the university’s lab safety manual. Harran told Baudendistel that he’d received the manual a month before the fire. The responsibilities include educating lab personnel on hazards and preventative measures, monitoring staff to ensure they work safely, and meeting legal requirements for occupational safety. Additionally, Harran had signed a form acknowledging receipt of the EH&S handbook for employees, which also details similar supervisor responsibilities.

Hum: And in addition to this documentation, did you specifically ask the defendant who was responsible for the safety training of Sheri Sangji?

Baudendistel: Yes.
Hum: Who did the defendant tell you was specifically responsible for victim Sangji’s safety training?
Baudendistel: Dr. Harran indicated he was.

Hum then asked Baudendistel to clarify an interview he’d had with graduate student Andrew Roberts and what safety training was available other than that provided by chemical safety officer Michael Wheatley. Baudendistel testified that Roberts said postdoctoral researcher Paul Hurley would help others in the lab, depending on what people asked him about.

Hum asked how Harran described the way Sangji allocated time when working in lab, and Baudendistel testified that Harran told him Sangji would spend about two-thirds of her time on a mass spectrometry instrument and one-third on “actual chemistry.”

Hum next turned to Baudendistel’s testimony about his conversation with Mark Potyen, a research scientist at Sigma-Aldrich, which manufactured the tert-butyllithium Sangji was transferring when the fire started. Sangji used a plastic syringe for the transfer. Baudendistel said that, according to Potyen, using plastic syringes went against Sigma-Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134(*), because the bulletin requires that a syringe be baked to dry it and that it be pressurized, neither of which can be done with a plastic syringe. Regarding training people to handle pyrophoric reagents, Hum had Baudendistel say again that no particular degree is required, and training is an iterative process of having the trainee watch the trainer, then the trainer watch the trainee until the trainer is comfortable that the trainee knows what he or she is doing. Potyen told Baudendistel that Potyen learned the procedure in graduate school, when his adviser showed him and then watched while Potyen did it.

Next, Hum asked about Baudendistel’s interview with grad student Roberts regarding a lab inspection two months before the fire and whether violations identified in the inspection report were corrected. Roberts said that problems regarding boxes, overhead storage, and solvent storage were corrected. Problems regarding lab personnel not wearing personal protective equipment were not corrected, Baudendistel testified.

Then Hum turned to Baudendistel’s interviews with chemical safety officer Wheatley. Under questioning by Hum, Baudendistel said that he interviewed Wheatley over two days, first on July 29, 2009, and then on Aug. 14, 2009. The second interview occurred less than an hour after Baudendistel interviewed Roberts. In the July interview, Baudendistel testified, Wheatley said that wearing lab coats was mandatory, that he told Roberts so during the inspection, and that Roberts agreed. In August, Roberts and then Wheatley each said that university policy was that wearing lab coats was discretionary. The inspection report notes more than once that lab personnel were not wearing personal protective equipment and says that they must do so, Baudendistel testified.

That ended redirect questioning. At that point, O’Brien asked a few additional questions. In one, O’Brien asked Baudendistel if Sigma-Aldrich’s Potyen said he ever uses plastic syringes. Baudendistel said yes. O’Brien also clarified that during at least one of Baudendistel’s interviews with Wheatley, the safety officer said that wearing lab coats was discretionary. Baudendistel agreed.

The judge then dismissed Baudendistel. Next, chemical safety expert Langerman returned to the stand. Langerman began his testimony on Nov. 20, day three of the hearing.

Deputy District Attorney Marguerite Rizzo started with a few additional direct questions for Langerman, clarifying the experiment that Harran had observed Sangji doing on Oct. 14, 2008, before she started using tert-butyllithium. The Oct. 14 experiment involved a Grubbs II catalyst, which degrades when exposed to air but is not pyrophoric. According to Sangji’s notebook, Sangji weighed it out and handled solutions of the catalyst in a glove bag. The solution volumes were about 5 mL, Langerman testified. In her Oct. 17 and Dec. 29, 2008, experiments, Sangji used a gas manifold and syringe to transfer 54 and 160 mL of tert-butyllithium, respectively.

Rizzo also asked Langerman if there was anything in Sangji’s background—her Pomona transcript, resume, senior thesis, papers, and presentation slides—that indicated she had the training and skill to work on tert-butyllithium. Langerman said no. Rizzo had no further questions for Langerman.

O’Brien started cross examination by asking about Langerman’s background. As a faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine and Utah State University, Langerman worked on air-sensitive substances—deoxygenated hemoglobin—but did not do organic chemistry or handle pyrophorics. Langerman’s lab group at Tufts was three to four people and at Utah State it was five to six people. In his three-decades of consulting, Langerman has worked more for industry than he has for academia, he said.

Questioned by O’Brien, Langerman said that he’s familiar with Cal/OSHA regulations. O’Brien then asked Langerman if the expert was aware of regulations in Texas, where Harran previously ran a lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Rizzo objected to the question on grounds of relevance and the judge sustained the objection.

The defense attorney than asked Langerman about differences in safety standards between academia and industry. Echoing Baudendistel’s earlier testimony, Langerman said that he believes that safety training is more extensive in industry than in academia, but there is no difference in the “standard of care”—a legal term that means “the degree of care (watchfulness, attention, caution, and prudence) that a reasonable person should exercise under the circumstances,” according to Nolo.

Although Langerman did not use pyrophorics in his own research labs, he learned some techniques while a graduate student in Duward Shriver’s lab at Northwestern University, he testified. Then, as he started his consulting practice in the early 1980s, he learned from two mentors from industry labs. When he trains people now, he says, he uses a standard approach to teaching motor skills: explanation, demonstration, practice with a nonreactive substance, and then finally supervised work with the reactive material until the trainee demonstrates confidence and skill. Langerman testified that the determination of skill level is subjective and based on professional judgment. He said that instruction styles might differ between different trainers, such as between him and Potyen, but that the basic approach was the same.

O’Brien then turned to asking Langerman about Sangji’s experience and work history. At Norac, Sangji was allowed to work only in the presence of a saenior chemist, Langerman said. She received safety training at Norac, including training on “gowning.” Langerman explained what gowning meant by pointing out that Norac follows current good manufacturing practices for pharmaceuticals, which means that people entering the manufacturing facility have to wear complete body coverings to protect the integrity of the product. Norac required that all chemists working in laboratories wear lab coats and safety glasses, and gloves were routinely used, Langerman testified. But Langerman declined to say whether those requirements are a “correct” standard for labs, however, because “the level of personal protective equipment has to be risk based, it can’t be a flat ‘this is what you’ll wear.’”

O’Brien next asked about Sangji’s work at UCLA. According to her lab notebook, Oct. 17 and Dec. 29, 2008, were the only two days that Sangji worked with tert-butyllithium. On the other days outlined in her notebook, she worked with the air-sensitive Grubbs II catalyst. O’Brien asked whether the transfer mechanism with a syringe or cannula would be the same whether a compound is air sensitive or pyrophoric, and Langerman said that the technique could be the same, although Sangji worked with the Grubbs catalyst in a glove bag. O’Brien asked about some other compounds: sodium hydride, which Langerman said is sensitive to air and moisture but not pyrophoric; 10% palladium on carbon with hydrogen, which Langerman said is probably pyrophoric; and diazomethane, which Langerman said is not pyrophoric. O’Brien tried to ask whether diazomethane is a shock-sensitive explosive but Rizzo successfully objected.

The cross examination then focused on titration and whether the procedure is a complicated one. According to Sangji’s notebook, she had run titrations to determine the concentration of tert-butyllithium in the Aldrich bottles. Langerman said that the complexity of the procedure depends on the titration, including the nature of the solution being titrated. A standard freshman chemistry acid/base titration is not complicated, and a tert-butyllithium titration is not conceptually complicated but the execution is difficult because of the hazards of using the compound, he said. O’Brien asked if there was anything in Sangji’s background to indicate where she learned to titrate tert-butyllithium, and Langerman testified that he didn’t know where she learned it.

O’Brien then asked Langerman about Sangji’s experiments with tert-butyllithium on Oct. 17 and Oct. 29, 2008. Langerman said that the December experiment was a three-fold scale-up over the October experiment. O’Brien asked if Langerman was aware if Sangji was exposed to scale-up process safety training at Norac, and Langerman said he was not aware of that. “If she had, hypothetically, been exposed to that type of training at Norac, would it change your opinion at all regarding the additional training she might need, Ms. Sangji needed, to do this scale up proceeding on the 29th of December?” O’Brien asked. Langerman said no.

O’Brien counted up the tert-butyllithium transfers that Sangji appeared to do successfully prior to the accident: one titration and one experimental on Oct. 17, 2008, and two titrations and one experimental on Dec. 29, 2008. O’Brien asked about records or documentation of training that Sangji received at UCLA. There was no documentation, Langerman said, and the testimony seems “at best, muddled” on what training Sangji might have received.

O’Brien then walked through some of the things Sangji appeared to do on the day of the fire. Langerman testified that it’s unclear how much tert-butyllithium tried to transfer by syringe for the experiment, and whether she rinsed the syringe in hexane. There was an open flask of hexane in the hood that spilled and caught fire, and Langerman said that it was most likely there to be available for rinsing the syringe.

Next, O’Brien turned to the synthetic sweater Sangji was wearing on the day of the fire. Langerman testified that synthetic materials burn hotter than natural fibers, such as cotton or wool. A lab coat would have retarded the fire and mitigated the severity of Sangji’s injuries, Langerman said, although he couldn’t say by how much. O’Brien tried to ask Langerman if Sangji would still be alive if she had been wearing a lab coat over her sweater, but Rizzo successfully objected.

O’Brien asked if there’s anything in the Cal/OSHA regulations that required Sangji be given Sigma-Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134(*) for handling air-sensitive reagents. Langerman testified that the document is not specifically named in the regulations, just that the applicable regulation says that employees must be trained to perform their required tasks. O’Brien asked where chemists usually get the bulletin, and Langerman said that it’s included in Sigma-Aldrich shipments of air-sensitive chemicals, but whether the user receives it depends on how each institution handles deliveries of chemicals. People can also look it up online, Langerman said, if they’re aware that it exists. O’Brien asked Langerman about a “safety review” mentioned in Langerman’s report, and Langerman said that that’s when another, hopefully more experienced person checks over an experimental set-up to makes sure it meets the standards for the task. There was no documentation that a safety review was done for Sangji’s experiments, Langerman said.

O’Brien went on to ask whether chemists are trained to read chemical bottle labels, and Langerman said that that is certainly a goal of training. O’Brien asked if training procedures vary by lab, and Langerman said that it depends on what a lab is specifically doing. Cal/OSHA regulations do not prescribe a certain style, length, or quantity of training or who should conduct it, Langerman testified, although regulations do incorporate language to the effect of “sufficient for the employee to do the required work safely,” he said. Langerman added that training requirements are “subjective to the extent that the employer can demonstrate that training was given which set the employee up for safe work practices.” Training can be unstructured, and documentation can include a note in a lab notebook that the individual was shown how to do something, with a date and trainer signature, Langerman said.

Under further questioning by O’Brien, Langerman said that professors are not required to train lab members, and it is common for postdocs or graduate students to do so.

Then there was this exchange about whether Sangji’s work with the Grubbs II catalyst constituted training for her use of tert-butyllithium:

O’Brien, reading from a report authored by Langerman: Back to that same paragraph, sir, I’ll read the full sentence. “While the exact training procedure for a new person to learn to safely handle a pyrophoric chemical will vary by laboratory, it must include a demonstration of how to properly perform the procedure, one or more practice sessions with an inert liquid, and then a number of observed uses of the reagent until the person demonstrates sufficient knowledge and skill to safely handle the chemical in the procedure without direct supervision.” Did I read that correctly?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And that’s your opinion, sir, correct?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: Now you noted in your review of the reports in this case that, and I believe we started with Ms. Rizzo’s slide this morning [of a page from Sangji’s lab notebook], and took a look at an experiment that Ms. Sangji did on Oct. 14, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And that was with an air-sensitive material, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And you learned in reviewing the documents and transcripts in this case that Prof. Harran personally observed Ms. Sangji conduct that experiment, right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And you noted from Mr. Baudendistel that she took all the proper and appropriate steps and did the experiment correctly, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And that would then constitute one or more practice sessions with an inert liquid, do you agree with that?
Langerman: No.
O’Brien: Do you think the experiment I’m talking about on Oct. 14 constitutes a practice session with an inert liquid?
Langerman: No.
O’Brien: Why is that, sir?
Langerman: The set-up was different, the volume was less, and Grubbs catalyst in dichloromethane is not an inert liquid, it’s a reactive.
O’Brien: It’s air sensitive?
Langerman: It’s air sensitive.
O’Brien: We’ve discussed this, I think, several times, but the technique that Ms. Sangji demonstrated for Prof. Harran on Oct. 14, in terms of transferring an air-sensitive material is the same technique that you would use to transfer a pyrophoric compound such as [tert-butyllithium], is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: So when she demonstrated that technique before Prof. Harran, in his direct presence, she did it perfectly, right?
Langerman: That’s the testimony, yes.

Following that, O’Brien asked Langerman about Sangji’s interactions with postdoc Hurley and went through several details of the incident and Hurley’s interview with Baudendistel:

O’Brien: And Dr. Hurley said he wouldn’t necessarily clamp the bottle, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And in the accident involving Ms. Sangji on 29th of December, you opined after reviewing the documents that the tert-butyllithium bottle had not been clamped, right?
Langerman: Correct.
O’Brien: Going back to the 14th of October, when Prof. Harran was watching Ms. Sangji conduct the transfer using a non-pyrophoric, air sensitive, Prof. Harran said that she actually clamped the bottle, is that right?
Langerman: I believe so, yes.
O’Brien: Also, Dr. Hurley told Mr. Baudendistel that he wouldn’t necessarily use the longer needle, which is called for in the Aldrich bulletin, to transfer the tert-butyllithium, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And in fact, if you look at photographs, I think we put those up last month, it indicates that Ms. Sangji in her syringe transfer was also using a needle which was a short needle, is that right?
Langerman: That’s correct.
O’Brien: Is that part of the reason you believe Ms. Sangji had been trained, albeit improperly, by Dr. Hurley?
Langerman: Given Dr. Hurley’s testimony of lack of memory of doing training, it’s difficult for me to develop an opinion as to what, if anything, he actually told Ms. Sangji.
O’Brien: And again, you mentioned this earlier, I think, there were other witness transcripts that you also reviewed, and those other witnesses observed Dr. Hurley training Ms. Sangji in dealing with tert-butyllithium, is that right?
Langerman: I don’t believe that’s what the record reflects.
O’Brien: Do you recall some of the witnesses in the transcript observing Dr. Hurley standing with Sheri Sangji on the 17th of October when she did this reaction with tert-butyllithium?

Langerman: I recall the testimony, but again in reading it, the observer, the person, I think it was Dr. Ding, was not sure what they were doing. So again for me, it was not clear what was going on.

And after some discussion of Hurley’s qualifications:

O’Brien: Do you believe it would then be reasonable for someone like Prof. Harran to rely on Dr. Hurley, a published Ph.D. on various pyrophoric substances, to be an adequate instructor in the laboratory on the transfer of pyrophoric substances?

Langerman: Certainly to rely on, but that doesn’t relieve the requirement to make sure the training is, is, that’s being given is appropriate.
O’Brien: I’m not saying that at all. The question is the first part. Was it reasonable in your opinion for Dr. Harran to be able to rely on Dr. Paul Hurley to construct a proper mechanism for transferring a pyrophoric substance?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: At the bottom of page 10 of your report, sir … you include a large citation, a large quote of Prof. Harran … and this is part of again an interview that Prof. Harran gave to Mr. Baudendistel?
Langerman: Yes.

O’Brien: In this quote, Prof. Harran was describing how Ms. Sangji apparently conducted the experiment, is that right?
Langerman: Yes.
O’Brien: And Prof. Harran said, this is the last line in this, “That’s certainly not how she did experiments when I was in the lab with her at all. Uh, and I don’t know, but I certainly hope that my personnel, my senior personnel, would not ever show someone to do an experiment that way, ever.” Is that right?
Langerman: That’s the quote, yes.
O’Brien: You indicated in your report that Ms. Sangji had demonstrated the ability to perform a cannula transfer, yes?
Langerman: Yes.

O’Brien then went on to ask about the need for fire-retardant clothing when handling tert-butyllithium. He asked Langerman whether universities issued fire-resistant lab coats back in 2008. Langerman said that few did, and UCLA did not provide such lab coats.

Finally, O’Brien asked Langerman about notes from a meeting between two deputy district attorneys and Baudendistel. The notes were not written by Langerman, but indicated that he had said Sangji’s notebook was very specific when outlining procedures. Langerman did not recall saying that, but testified that to the best of his memory he said that her notebook was clear and may have said specific. Langerman did not recall a statement in the notes that Sangji had gone to a journal or other source to determine how to set up the air-sensitive experiment. And lastly, O’Brien asked about standard operating procedures in academic research labs and whether they would often refer to bulletins online. “Not if they have been prepared properly,” Langerman answered.

Deputy district attorney Rizzo then got up to question Langerman again. O’Brien successfully objected to her first few questions regarding safety training in industry and the amount of time Sangji spent on experiments. Rizzo then asked Langerman about an ignition source for the hexane in the hood, which Langerman said would have been the tert-butyllithium fire. Langerman also testified that there is not much room on the tert-butyllithium bottle label, and that the label contains no explanation of transfer procedure.

Rizzo: Dr. Langerman, would you agree that that a principal investigator has other duties, ah, other than working in the lab, that’s correct?
Langerman: Yes.
Rizzo: Would you agree that the principal investigator, sir, based on your background, training, and experience, your opinion is that the primary responsibility for the activities of their staff, is that correct?

Langerman: Yes.

Rizzo: What is your opinion regarding the PI’s responsibilities regarding safe work practices in the laboratory?
Langerman: The PI is in the lab the top of the chain of command, and is therefore directly responsible to make sure that the people he or she tasks to do the work do it correctly.
Rizzo: And what is your opinion regarding the PIs responsibility relative to written standard operating procedures in his or her laboratory.

Langerman: There’s a requirement for that, for SOPs, and the PI is responsible to meet requirements—make sure the lab meets requirements.

After Rizzo’s redirect questioning, O’Brien returned to ask a few more questions about the tert-butyllithium bottle label. Langerman testified that the bottle advises the user to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and that it says the chemical is pyrophoric.

The judge dismissed Langerman from the stand. The judge then went through the various exhibits submitted by the attorneys and entered some of them into evidence. After that, O’Brien said that he wanted to move to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence or to reduce the charges. He asked to submit his arguments in writing because of “voluminous” facts and because the case centers on what he described as a new use of a law. Judge Lench accepted O’Brien’s request, ordered that all arguments and counterarguments be filed by Feb. 1, and set the next court date for Feb. 15.

(*) The link goes to the version of Sigma-Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134 for handling air-sensitive reagents that was available in 2008/2009. The company has since updated the bulletin and the current version is available here.

Other coverage this week:
News outlets – Los Angeles Times, Associated Press
Blogs – Chemjobber, Science Careers

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Thank you for providing this.