A judge today denied a motion to dismiss criminal charges against a UCLA chemistry professor stemming from a laboratory fire that killed a 23-year-old research assistant.
Professor Patrick Harran, 44, is charged with three counts of willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji. Prosecutors say he was responsible for training Sangji and making sure that she wore protective gear.
Defense attorneys argued that their client could not be held criminally liable because he wasn't Sangji's employer.
"This accident did not happen at Harran Laboratories Inc.," said defense attorney Johnny O'Kane. "It happened in UCLA's laboratory ... on UCLA's campus."
Sangji's contract was with the university, not Harran, O'Kane argued. And the charges against the professor apply only to employers, not supervisors, according to the defense's interpretation.
Judge George G. Lomeli disagreed.
"The court concludes that he's an employer. Period," Lomeli said. Harran had the authority to recruit, interview and hire personnel, the judge said.
Even if that weren't true, Lomeli added, Harran was a "supervisorial employee" subject to criminal charges under the relevant labor laws.
Sangji died about 2 1/2 weeks after the December 2008 laboratory fire, which left her with burns over almost half of her body, according to evidence presented at a preliminary hearing last year.
The assistant -- who was not wearing a lab coat -- suffered second- and third-degree burns in the fire. Authorities said she was using a syringe to transfer tert-butyllithium -- which can ignite when exposed to room air -- when the syringe came apart and the chemical burst into flames, setting her clothing ablaze.
Harran was charged in December 2011 along with the University of California Board of Regents, but criminal charges against the regents were later dismissed in exchange for enforcing safety measures on campus and establishing a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name at UC Berkeley.
Many of the arguments made by the defense today echoed those made during a preliminary hearing. Harran had recently joined UCLA from Texas, was unaware of state safety regulations and wasn't given clear guidance by the university, Harran's attorneys said.
Sangji's resume indicated she had experience with the relevant chemicals and defense attorneys said Harran had performed a similar experiment alongside Sangji just two months earlier. She wore protective gear and transferred the chemical without a problem.
But "the (December) procedure was different," Lomeli concluded, citing evidence from the preliminary hearing. Whether or not Sangji claimed to know what she was doing, Harran had the "ultimate legal obligation to determine whether (Sangji had the required training)," the judge said.
Lomeli said he was also taking into account an interview during which Harran told investigators he was aware of certain safety regulations.
Defense attorney Daniel Prince said the interview followed Sangji's death by nearly a year and the answer reflected Harran's understanding of the rules only after the university made significant efforts to increase lab safety.
"Judge (Lisa) Lench didn't buy that argument," said Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum of the judge who presided over the preliminary hearing. Hum has argued that Harran acted as both "supervisor and an employer" of Sangji, making hiring decisions and paying for assistants out of his budget.
Hum cited People v. Gaglione while making his case that safety standards are the responsibility of both employers and supervisors.
The case involves two Burbank city employees who died of asphyxiation in May 1980, while working in a manhole without gas masks or safety harnesses. Gerald Gaglione, the superintendent of the water reclamation plant where the men worked, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and labor law violations and sentenced to probation and a one-year jail term.
Lomeli said it would be left for a jury to decide whether the evidence meets the standard of "reasonable doubt," but at this stage, he believed prosecutors had made a "strong showing of a strong suspicion" that the charges are true.
Harran, due back in court Oct. 3 for a pre-trial hearing, faces 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted, according to the District Attorney's Office.