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.