This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Charges dropped against UC Regents in connection with lab accident

UCLA and Regents vow to support professor in ongoing legal battle

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Acknowledging UCLA’s dedication to further enhancing lab safety on its campus and beyond, the Los Angeles County District Attorney today dismissed all charges against the University of California Board of Regents – which oversees the 10-campus system – in connection with a December 2008 campus lab accident that took the life of a staff research associate, Sheri Sangji.
 
At the same time, the district attorney is proceeding with unprecedented charges against UCLA organic chemistry Professor Patrick Harran.

While expressing appreciation to the D.A. for recognizing UCLA’s commitment to enhancing lab safety programs, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was also sharply critical of the decision to proceed with charges against Harran.

"The decision by the district attorney’s office to move forward with its prosecution is distressing and, even though the regents have been released from this case, our engagement is far from over," Block said in a message sent to the campus community on Friday. "UCLA and the regents will continue our unwavering support for Professor Harran, a talented organic chemistry professor. We will continue to fully provide for his defense."

On Friday, Harran’s attorney filed a motion asking for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) criminal investigator, Brian Baudendistel – whose report formed the basis of the district attorney’s case – is a convicted murderer who misrepresented himself to state authorities and never should have been allowed to look into the matter.

An earlier Cal/OSHA probe into the accident by a different investigator, which included interviews with UCLA officials and the examination of numerous documents, resulted in fines paid by the university but ultimately found no willful violations on the part of UCLA – and thereby no basis for prosecution.

In an effort to honor Sangji’s memory, a $500,000 scholarship will be established in her name at the UC Berkeley School of Law, which sent her an acceptance letter shortly after the accident. UCLA will also continue its work in lab safety and further work to establish a lab safety program and policies for all 10 University of California campuses.

In the past several years, the campus has dramatically enhanced its lab safety programs, increasing the number of inspections, strengthening policies on the required use of personal protective equipment and developing a hazard assessment tool that labs must update annually or whenever conditions change. Dozens of universities, regulatory agencies, private research operations and trade organizations have sought detailed information about UCLA's lab safety programs and requested presentations by campus personnel.

In addition, the UC Center for Laboratory Safety was established last year with the mission of improving laboratory safety and implementing best safety practices. The center — believed to be the first of its kind in the country — held its first workshop in March, attracting representatives of federal funding agencies and regulators, private companies and universities across the world. In June, the center partnered with other entities to distribute a survey on lab safety and practices and attitudes. As recently as last week, UCLA received a national award for its lab safety program.
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