Five-and-a-half years after 23-year-old Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji died from burns she suffered while working as a research assistant in the laboratory of University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) chemistry professor Patrick Harran, the landmark legal case arising from her death has come to an inconclusive end. On 20 June, Harran, who faced four felony charges asserting that he willfully violated state occupational safety laws, reached an agreement with the Los Angeles district attorney. The central legal issue of this first-ever criminal case against a professor in a lab-safety incident remains undecided.

Many in the chemistry community have expressed dismay and disappointment at the settlement’s apparent laxity, in light of widespread opinion that the fire was preventable and resulted from shoddy training and inadequate equipment. Had he been convicted on all charges, Harran could have faced 4.5 years in prison. Under the agreement, he accepts responsibility for the conditions in the lab but does not plead guilty to the charges. He must do 800 hours of community service over the next 5 years and pay $10,000—a sum he earns in less than 2 weeks—to the Grossman Burn Center, where Sangji died. In a touch of irony that probably was unintended, half of his required community service consists of teaching chemistry to precollege students. Harran must also avoid any additional safety incidents.

Sangji was a young technician, just 5 months beyond her undergraduate training at Pomona College, where she majored in chemistry. After graduating, she worked briefly for a chemical company, which considered her too inexperienced to work unsupervised. In October 2008, she joined the Harran lab.

The fire erupted and engulfed Sangji’s body while she was working alone in a cluttered space, using incorrect techniques and equipment, and wearing inappropriate clothing, as she tried to transfer a highly pyrophoric substance, which ignites on contact with air. UC, which also faced multiple felony charges, settled in 2012 on terms that included accepting responsibility for the conditions that caused the incident, improving safety practices throughout the university system, and establishing a scholarship in Sangji’s name.

Multiple system failures

In addition to revealing the appalling disregard for elementary safety measures rampant in many academic laboratories, Sangji’s tragedy highlights two other systemic flaws that expose academic lab workers to mortal risk. One is the disgracefully weak legal and administrative regime governing academic labs: Occupational safety laws cover only employees—not students. Had Sangji been enrolled rather than employed, the government would have had no legal recourse. When Yale University undergraduate Michele Dufault died when her hair got caught in a lathe, as she worked alone late at night in a university science building in 2011, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration could only make recommendations.

The second flaw is incentives that encourage universities to protect lab chiefs instead of workers. As the groundbreaking 2011 report on academic lab safety by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board notes, principal investigators (PIs) traditionally operate in a system of administrative “fiefdoms,” able to “do pretty much whatever they want so long as they do not stray too far into some other fief’s territory.” Successful PIs’ ability to move to a competing institution, taking their grant dollars with them, gives them tremendous power vis-à-vis university administrators, including safety officers. Harran has an outstanding record of winning grant funding—and thus income for the university, as revealed by his CV, substantial lab, personal income of approximately $300,000 annually, and, according to an investigative report by the California Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health, a $3.2 million startup fund he received when he moved to UCLA from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in July 2008. 

The university, which is to say the taxpayers of California, paid for Harran’s defense, which doubtlessly cost plenty. Paul Hastings LLP, an international corporate law firm with almost a thousand lawyers and annual revenue near a billion dollars, brags in its online newsletter about the new legal ground it broke in its “innovative handling of the case.” “Unlike standard deferred prosecution agreements, which require the accused to plead guilty or no contest to the charges before a probationary period begins, Professor Harran was not required to enter a plea to any criminal charge.” If he keeps the terms of the settlement and avoids further safety violations, “the charges … will be dismissed with prejudice”—that is, without the possibility of being reopened.

The case for delay

The core of the cases against the university and Harran was the exhaustive, excoriating, 95-page state investigative report. When it became public, displaying overwhelming evidence of negligence, the district attorney brought unprecedented felony charges against the university and the professor. Reading the report, as I wrote at the time, is “harrowing.” Detailing everything Sangji was not taught or provided, and everything she therefore did wrong, it concludes that "UCLA … wholly neglected its legal obligations to provide a safe working environment for lab personnel.”

The impression made by the report is that its author, Senior Special Investigator Brian Baudendistel, struggled to maintain a tone of technical and bureaucratic objectivity. By the end, the reader can almost feel him straining to preserve professional propriety despite mounting anger. "If Dr. Harran had utilized a standard operating procedure as required”—such as the one clearly described in detailed instructions and warnings provided by the manufacturer—“and would have properly trained Victim Sangji, and assured that clothing appropriate for the work was worn to protect her from inadvertent exposure to t-Butyllithium,” he writes in the report’s last sentence, “Victim Sangji's death would have been prevented."

Any random dozen ordinary mothers and fathers confronting this pitiless account of a needless young death caused by negligence of the powerful would, I suspect, react as Baudendistel and I did. Other chemical safety experts also testified at preliminary hearings that the fire was wholly preventable and, indeed, completely predictable. Hiding this evidence from 12 citizens in a jury box thus became the chief goal of Harran’s aggressive, inventive defense. For years his lawyers used every possible opportunity to prevent or delay a trial. In a move the Los Angeles Times called “bizarre,” Harran’s lawyers even attempted—unsuccessfully—to disqualify Baudendistel by claiming he had been involved in a killing when he was a minor. Baudendistel denied the claim.

Eventually, the defense found a tactic that worked. It petitioned the California Court of Appeal, arguing that Harran could not be guilty of violating the labor code because, under the law, the university—not he—was Sangji’s employer. In a rare step, the Court of Appeal agreed to hear arguments. This meant that regardless of the objective strength of the case, if the Court of Appeal accepted the defense’s argument on this technical point, charges would be dropped. And so, before the Court of Appeal could issue a decision—to salvage the possibility of exacting some retribution from Harran—the prosecution agreed to settle. This is doubtlessly what Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum meant when he told the Los Angeles Times that the settlement is "a fair resolution given the circumstances of the case." Because the appeals court did not rule, the question of whether the law applies to academic PIs remains unresolved.

The effect

For the Sangji family, who, in the words of Sheri's brother Hussain (quoted by the LA Times) “have waited nearly six years for some kind of justice for the excruciating pain Sheri suffered due to [Harran’s] negligence," the agreement is heartbreakingly inadequate. “[L]ike the previous [settlement] with UCLA, … is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual," the family said in a statement. Having come to know Sheri’s valiant sister Naveen, who spearheaded her family’s drive for justice, I have some inkling of the grief Sheri’s hideous death has inflicted on her parents, siblings, and others who loved her.

But even more important is Sheri’s influence on lab-safety practices across the country, which is now “an open question,” says safety expert Neal Langerman in an interview. Only “time and vigilance on the part of the academic community as a whole will make it play out properly.” There has been progress on lab safety, and many PIs now take a much keener interest in safety than before Sheri’s name became known throughout the scientific world. In many places, however, standards remain lax.

Still, “for the academic community, the point has been made,” Langerman continues. “A conviction would have driven the point home a lot deeper …, but … the filing of the charges was the act that really got the attention of the academic community. … The fire did not, the [2010] explosion at Texas Tech [that critically injured graduate student Preston Brown] did not. … The filing of the charges got their attention.”

Unfortunately the case’s ambiguous ending—with Harran accepting responsibility for conditions that led to a needless death (and not for the death itself) but suffering no serious consequences—may undermine the progress in safety thus far achieved. "If anything positive is to come out of this young lady's death," Langerman told me not long after Sheri died, it "must be that PIs in academic institutions are held accountable, with a regular systematic method, for safety." But now, should some similar incident occur, will a prosecutor bring charges, mindful of the possibility of another dismissal? Will PIs who don’t fear significant punishment still give safety the priority it requires? For now, the academic science community itself is on trial.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400176