A staff research assistant who died about two and a half weeks after being injured in a December 2008 laboratory fire at UCLA suffered burns over almost half of her body, a doctor testified Friday.
Dr. Peter H. Grossman told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa B. Lench that it initially appeared that 45 percent of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji's "total body surface area" had been burned, but the amount was later increased to 48.5 percent.
The testimony came during the first day of a hearing—set to resume Monday—to determine if there is enough evidence to require UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, 43, to stand trial on three felony counts of willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of an employee.
The charges stem from a Dec. 29, 2008 lab fire. The 23-year-old woman died Jan. 16, 2009.
The doctor said the young woman told him after being transferred from UCLA Medical Center to the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital that a chemical she was working with spilled and ignited, resulting in her clothing catching on fire.
In graphic testimony, the doctor described Sangji as "having quite a bit of pain," with second- and third-degree burns on various portions of her body, including her neck, hands, breasts, abdomen and lower extremities. She underwent a number of procedures, including the removal of "non-viable tissue" and the placement of cadaver skin on her wounds during her hospitalization, he testified.
The prosecution introduced 20 photos—shown on a large courtroom screen—of Sangji's injuries.
"Her overall condition was worsening and she was becoming septic," Grossman said of the process of the blood system becoming infected with bacteria.
Grossman noted that Sangji's heart stopped during one surgical procedure and doctors were able to get her back to the hospital's intensive care unit in critical condition. She was eventually declared brain dead and taken off life support Jan. 16, 2009, he testified.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Thomas P. O'Brien, the doctor said he was "surprised, quite surprised that she ended up going through the course she did" and he had believed that she was going to make it out of the hospital alive.
Harran was charged last December along with the Regents of the University of California.
On July 27, criminal charges against the UC regents were dismissed as the result of an "enforcement agreement" that called for corrective measures.
Sangji—who was not wearing a lab coat—suffered second- and third-degree burns as she was transferring a highly flammable chemical agent, tert-Butyllithium, when it spilled from a syringe and onto her hands, arms and body and ignited, according to the agreement between the District Attorney's Office and the UC regents.
Harran's attorney told reporters earlier this year that Sangji's death was an "unspeakable tragedy."
"... What happened in that laboratory was an accident, not a crime," O'Brien said in July. "While we all wish this terrible tragedy had not occurred, there is no reasonable explanation for this prosecution and it's been flawed from the start."
Harran faces four and a half years in prison if convicted of the charges, according to the District Attorney's Office.