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People v Patrick Harran continues

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran had another court status check today. The result is another status check scheduled for March 19. The continued delay in scheduling a trial is due at least in part to the fact that Harran’s attorneys are trying to get the case dismissed through the California Court of Appeal. Harran faces trial on four counts of felony violations of the state labor code relating to the 2009 death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a fire in Harran’s lab.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed the charges against Harran and the UC governing body on Dec. 27, 2011. UC settled with the district attorney on July 27, 2012, in exchange for implementing a prescribed safety program and a law scholarship in Sangji’s name. Judge Lisa B. Lench heard testimony in Harran’s preliminary hearing in November and December, 2012, then ruled on April 26, 2013, that there was enough evidence for a trial. On Aug. 26, 2013, Judge George G. Lomeli ruled against additional defense motions to dismiss the case.

On Oct. 24, 2013, Harran’s attorneys filed a “petition for writ of mandate, prohibition, or other appropriate relief” with the California Court of Appeal. The petition covers similar territory as the demurrer motion from last August: The defense argues that UC was the employer and Harran merely a supervisor. California Labor Code section 6425(a) makes it a crime for “Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee” to willfully violate an occupational safety or health standard in such a way that causes death or permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of an employee. Nevertheless, Harran’s attorneys write, the specific occupational safety and health regulations Harran is charged with violating reference either employer or no one at all (Title 8, sections 5191(f)(4), 3203(a)(6), 3383(a), and 3383(b)). Other regulations do call out supervisors. From the petition:

In the regulatory scheme, Cal/OSHA thus specifically identifies supervisors as the party legally responsible for certain acts when it deems necessary. In other circumstances, it simply prescribes duties of employers, and leaves to the employer how to divide responsibility for internal implementation of the safety standards. There is no principled justification to disregard the expressed policy preferences of the administrative body charged with promoting workplace safety in this state.

So far, the Court of Appeal has not done anything with the petition. Until it does, the case cannot proceed.

5 Comments

  • Jan 10th 201419:01
    by Dave

    So much for an expeditious trial.

  • Jan 14th 201421:01
    by Russell Vernon

    The Labor Law Regulations as they are applied in criminal charges are not very clear.
    It is frustrating that the defendant is forced to go to the appeals court to request clarity.
    One would hope that the legislature will take note and provide a less confusing statue.
    My 2 cents

  • Jan 23rd 201412:01
    by Auntie markovnikov

    What a joke. Motions to dismiss based on semantics of OSHA standards…self-obsessed narcissists running the science world into the ground because they can’t be bothered to establish viable safety protocols. For me, it comes down to this- no way should a first year/undergrad/intern of her experience level be handling such high level pyrophorics. Regardless of all else- that’s his lab, his chemical and his student and he was responsible and failed miserably. Time to see if the justice system can fix what has been broken

  • Jan 23rd 201412:01
    by Auntie markovnikov

    What a joke. Motions to dismiss based on semantics of OSHA standards…self-obsessed narcissists running the science world into the ground because they can’t be bothered to establish viable safety protocols. For me, it comes down to this- no way should a first year/undergrad/intern of her experience level be handling such high level pyrophorics. Regardless of all else- that’s his lab, his chemical and his student and he was responsible and failed miserably.

  • Feb 1st 201400:02
    by Sigmund Derman

    I ran an academic biochemistry/molecular biology laboratory lab for quite a few years. The safety culture at that time was not particularly strong in most academic centers. It always seemed to me that many labs were courting disaster. There were some injuries at my institution but none in my lab. But I never had such dangerous reactions going on as they used in Harran’s lab. One exception was using cyanogen bromide which certainly can kill someone. I tended to fear the worst and thus I obsessively checked the safety precautions. My own Ph.D. adviser had been the same way—virtually obsessional about details, including safety. But I knew other grad students whose advisers let them do anything such as eat lunch with one hand and pipette radioactive or toxic chemicals with the other. I almost always went through the whole procedure with a trainee or lab assistant before I would let them do it alone. Or, I had another experienced person do the supervision. Nonetheless, something bad could have happened anyway.Thank God it didn’t. I doubt that Harran was unusually careless for the laboratory culture at such institutions. Hopefully there has already been a change in the safety culture at his institution.

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