HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Monday, September 16, 2013

Criminal Charges Sustained Against Chemistry Professor for Death of Assistant in Lab Accident Requires New Focus on Lab Safety Laws

Many of us who teach and write in the area of "research law" area are far more familiar with the regulations protecting human subjects of research than the more general safety of those who conduct research.   We, and our students, need to become familiar with the patchwork of laws and agencies regulating safety in labs and other research settings.   For example, until we had an accident on our own campus, I had never heard of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board which is “an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents” but whose jurisdiction also extends to colleges and universities.  It's like the NTSB for labs.

We all need to be following the criminal trial of Dr. patrick G. Harran, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles.  The case involves the horrific and tragic death in 2008 of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 21 year old college graduate working in Dr. Harran's lab while applying to law school.  In other words, she was not a UCLA student.

Following her death, the University, its Board of Regents and Dr. Harran all faced criminal charges based on violations of the California state labor code.   The charges against the University and the Regents were dropped based on a lab safety agreement between the University and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, but a California court has rejected Dr. Harran’s motion to dismiss the charges and scheduled a pre-trial hearing for October 3rd

The defendant moved to dismiss, but the court denied his motion.  This case also provides an important link between health law and employment law since it is theCalifornia Labor Code that is the source of the criminal charges against Dr. Harran.  Against his strong protests, the case is going forward on an interpretation of the law finding him, not the university, the employer of his lab assistant.

 Several websites including this one and this one are tracking the case very closely.

This is a video account of the events suitable for use in class.  This is a slightly longer one.  This is a 24 minute version that is also good.


For anyone not yet using "Google Alerts" this is a great way to keep track of a story that is not well covered by the national press.

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