University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran returns to court tomorrow to conclude a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. The judge hearing the case is expected to rule whether to send the case forward to trial.
The fire started when Sangji was handling a pyrophoric compound, tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. She was trying to transfer the reagent by syringe when the plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the solution to air. The tert-butyllithium ignited and Sangji’s clothes caught fire. Several aspects of the incident indicate that Sangji did not know how to handle the material safely and was not prepared for something to go wrong.
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 court heard testimony in November and December last year. Recaps of the testimony can be read here: Day one, two, three, four, five, and six.
At the end of a preliminary hearing, it is standard for the defense to ask the judge to dismiss or reduce the charges. In this case, Harran’s attorneys asked to file their arguments in writing. Over the last few months, Harran’s attorneys filed a motion “to dismiss; or, in the alternative, to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors.” The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office responded to that motion. Then Harran’s attorneys replied to the response. The judge is expected to rule on Friday whether the case will go to trial with the original charges, the case will go to trial with reduced charges, or the case is dismissed.
Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee, who willfully violates any occupational safety or health standard, order, or special order, or Section 25910 of the Health and Safety Code, and that violation caused death to any employee, or caused permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of any employee, is guilty of a public offense punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a term not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine; or by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, or two or three years, or by a fine of not more than two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine; and in either case, if the defendant is a corporation or a limited liability company, the fine may not exceed one million five hundred thousand dollars ($1,500,000).
Willfully is a tricky term. It means that the employer’s or employee manager’s actions were not accidental, although it does not imply that the employer or manager intended to break the law or injure someone.
Count 1 specifies occupational safety regulation 5191(f)(4), which focuses on employee information and training. Part (f)(1) reads: “The employer shall provide employees with information and training to ensure that they are apprised of the hazards of chemicals present in their work area. Information and training may relate to an entire class of hazardous substances to the extent appropriate.” Part (f)(4)(A)(3) says that employee training shall include “[t]he measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, including specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and personal protective equipment to be used.”
Count 2 specifies occupational safety regulation 3203(a)(6). Regulation 3203 generally defines injury and illness prevention programs. Part (a)(6) says that programs shall “[i]nclude methods and/or procedures for correcting unsafe or unhealthy conditions, work practices and work procedures in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard.”
Count 3 specifies occupational safety regulation 3383(b), which requires that “[c]lothing appropriate for the work being done shall be worn. Loose sleeves, tails, ties, lapels, cuffs, or other loose clothing which can be entangled in moving machinery shall not be worn.”
The defense motion to dismiss or reduce the charges presents arguments in two parts, which are summarized here with the prosecution’s response in italics.
First, the defense argues that there is no evidence that Harran willfully violated a health or safety standard or regulation. No one at UCLA ever informed Harran what his legal obligations are. Additionally, Harran believed that Sangji had been trained before arriving at UCLA and was further trained by postdoctoral researcher Paul Hurley. And Harran’s actions regarding safety in his lab were consistent with those of the academic community.
Prosecution: The penal code definition of willfully does not require knowledge of specific duties. Also, Harran was aware of his duties to train, to correct workplace safety violations, and to ensure people in his lab wore appropriate personal protective equipment.
The second part of the defense arguments specifically addresses the three counts:
- On failure to train – The regulation does not proscribe specific types or quantity of training, Harran believed that Sangji was trained prior to UCLA and further by Hurley, and training was consistent with academic standards. Harran also watched Sangji successfully complete an experiment with an air-sensitive (but not pyrophoric) catalyst, so concluded she had the necessary skills. Regarding the training by Hurley, “[e]ven if the training was inadequate, the existence of the same disproves the claim that Professor Harran willfully failed to provide training.”
Prosecution: “The fact that academic laboratories in general had a lower standard of training than industrial laboratories is not a defense.” Additionally “neither defendant Harran, nor anyone else at his direction, provided proper and appropriate training to victim Sangji.” Even if Hurley had trained Sangji, ineffective training does not satisfy the requirement to train and “Defendant Harran cannot escape legal liability for his actions by delegating his duties to someone who performs them improperly.”
- On failing to establish and maintain an effective illness and injury prevention program – There is no evidence that Harran himself was responsible for creating and implementing such a program. It was the university’s responsibility. And even if it was the professor’s responsibility, he didn’t know it.
Prosecution: Harran did not correct safety violations identified in an inspection preceding the fire. He also failed to follow or require that members of his lab follow “standard operating procedures, regulations, and university policy.”
- On failing to require work-appropriate clothing – The regulation does not specify who is required to ensure this. Also, there is no evidence that Harran allowed it. There is also no evidence that a lab coat would have mitigated Sangji’s injuries.
Prosecution: Wearing lab coats was not optional, Harran knew that people in his lab weren’t consistently wearing them, and he didn’t require them to do so. Also, “[t]he fact that fire-resistant lab coats were not supplied by UCLA is not a defense to the failure by defendant Harran to require that appropriate clothing be worn for the work being done in the lab.”
The prosecution response to the defense motion also says that “the defense also repeatedly cites portions of the preliminary hearing transcript for propositions they do not support or that are misleading when read in context.” This is something the defense also did in an earlier court filing.
We’ll see what the judge thinks about it all tomorrow.
Finally, last but not least, our favorite quote from reading 150 pages of legalese, courtesy of the prosecution:
…Sangji determined that she needed 269.5 molecules of tert-Butyllithium to conduct the experiment…
Remember to always include your half-molecules, folks. (The text should say millimoles. If my stoichiometry skills aren’t too rusty, 269.5 millimoles is 1.62*1023 molecules.)