Outrage over plea bargain in burning death of lab worker

LOS ANGELES (PAI) – A plea-bargained small settlement in the six-year-old case of a worker – a Communications Workers member – who burned to death in an unsafe college chemical laboratory has outraged both her family and her union.

But the 2008 death of 23-year-old Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a research assistant and CWA Local 9119 member, has had one positive development: It led the federal National Research Council, which awards grants to many U.S. colleges and universities, to warn them last month that they must obey job safety and health laws and protect their workers.

While working in the UCLA chemical lab in December 2008, Sangji was transferring t-butyl lithium – a solution that catches on fire on contact with air – from one container to another, when her plastic syringe came apart, Local 9119 reported.  It spilled onto Sangji and instantly set her afire.  She wasn’t wearing a lab coat because no one – including lab supervisor Dr. Patrick Harran – instructed her to do so.  Her rubber gloves didn’t protect her, either.  Sangji suffered severe burns and died 18 days later.

Los Angeles officials sued UCLA on three felony counts and indicted Harran on four criminal counts of breaking state job safety and health laws. UCLA settled in 2012 by agreeing to fix the lab and establishing a $500,000 Sangji memorial scholarship.

On August 21, Harran accepted a “deferred prosecution” plea bargain of three months of community service and a $5,000 fine, sent to the burn center that treated Sangji.  The local judge was upset enough with what he heard in court to double both penalties.

So were the union and Sangji’s family. Local 9119 said the L.A. District Attorney should have taken the case against Harran to trial, as a deterrent to other erring labs. Naveen Sangji, Sheri Sangji’s sister, called Harran’s plea bargain “barely a slap on the wrist.

“Harran has been completely unrepentant about ordering Sheri to perform an extremely dangerous experiment without providing her with training or supervision as he is required by law,” Naveen Sangji said.  And UCLA, “perhaps because of its culpability, and perhaps because of grant monies Harran brings in, also refused to hold him accountable.  We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers.  We can only hope other young individuals are protected in the future.”

Photo: Sheri Sangji. CWA



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.