Patrick Harran arraigned on four felony counts, #SheriSangji case to be continued in June

By Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned today on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. A Los Angeles County judge entered a not guilty plea on Harran’s behalf for all four counts. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in the professor’s lab

Another judge ruled last month that Harran should face trial on three charges, each citing a violation of a separate state safety regulation: failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees. The Los Angeles County District Attorneys added a fourth charge that essentially expanded on the clothing and protective equipment charge.

The new charge is for violating occupational safety regulation 3383(a), which states “body protection may be required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.” The original charge cited part (b) of that regulation: “Clothing 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.”

At the arraignment today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, said Harran would not enter a plea because the defense team planned to file a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges. Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum argued that the defense could file the motion after the plea. The judge then entered the not guilty plea for Harran.

The case was assigned to a new courtroom and the next court date was set for June 27. The June 27 appearance will be a status update to see how ready both sides are for a trial.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. “body protection _may be_ [underlining mine] required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.”

    This strange clause would best be stated in mandatory language and not permissive:

    “body protection _IS_ required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.”

  2. In my opinion, the indictment of UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran is a travesty of justice. The tragic death of Sheri Sangji was clearly due to her own negligence. I am a retired Chemical Engineer who spent a career dealing with highly flammable raw materials. Having a degree in Chemistry entails knowing the properties of
    every chemical that a researcher has to deal with. She had to know that transferring
    t-butyl lithium should have been done behind the glass shield of a laboratory hood. Why she made that mistake is unknown, but Professor Harran certainly was not at fault.

    Martin J. Weisman

  3. Though I, of course, feel the most sorrow for Ms. Sanjii and her family, I feel sorry for Dr. Harran as well. I used to be a principal investigator running a molecular biology lab. Now I “just” teach, not because I got into such trouble but because I didn’t get enough grants (well, I did get them for many years but ultimately my luck or skill ran out). But like so many other lab people, I look at this and think of the classic line “There but for the grace of God go I.” I would be happy if he were acquitted on the basis of what I know about the case (which is, of course, incomplete). Though I never had any materials quite like the ones used in Harran’s lab, what if someone would have lit a Bunsen burner right next to an open container of ether,,,or something similar? Did I ever instruct my students, techs or post-docs SPECIFICALLY not to do that? I don’t think so. At that level it should be common sense. While running my lab I felt that I was very safety conscious. I actually probably did give specific instructions to keep fire far away from flammables. But I didn’t document what I said. Well those days are gone. Document everything. Give specific courses on every conceivable safety hazard and also on 99.999% of the unconceivable hazards. But lack of such training should not be considered Harran’s fault. The state seems to be holding him to standards which only now are being put in place. Of course, I do not know how his lab actually functioned. Perhaps people will come forward and say that he regularly encouraged flouting standard safety precautions. If so, I would feel differently. Let the evidence come forth and let the jury figure that out. But from what I have read about the case, I do not think that criminal charges against Professor Harran are justified.

  4. For 30 years it has been made clear via the Lab Standard – to all who will really pay attention – that even in academia it is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that the subordinate is provided with adequate supervision, training, info, and equipment so as to work safely. Nothing of the sort was happening here and I’m the aftermath there was apparent arrogance, deceit, and tampering with evidence. Faculty are far too busy to listen, in general. Until there are real penalties they will consider themselves immune to these rules by virtue of their tenured and respected status. They are the only ones who can *make* it happen, and it takes time and energy.