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UC regents strike plea deal in UCLA chemistry lab death

Half of the felony charges stemming from a 2008 lab accident that killed UCLA research assistant Sheri Sangji were dropped Friday when the University of California regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on Dec. 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

Charges remain against her supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. His arraignment was postponed to Sept. 5 to allow the judge to consider defense motions, including one challenging the credibility of the state’s chief investigator on the case.

Sangji was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. Her synthetic sweater caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

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UCLA and Harran have called her death a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear a protective lab coat.

In December, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Harran and the regents with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

In settling the case, the regents agreed to maintain a comprehensive lab safety program across UC campuses, including enhanced safety training and protective equipment. The board also will endow a $500,000 environmental law scholarship in Sangji’s name at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, from which Sangji had received an acceptance letter.

Her older sister, Naveen Sangji, has pressed for prosecution of Harran and UCLA but welcomed the admission of responsibility.

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“UCLA and the regents have finally admitted that they wronged Sheri terribly,” she said. “Our family’s pain will not diminish, but our hope, of course, is that no one else has to suffer the way Sheri did and that such tragedies are avoided in the future.”

UC officials said Friday that they stand by Harran. They and Harran’s lawyer, Thomas O’Brien, expressed sympathy for Sangji’s family, but said charges against the professor are unwarranted.

“What happened in that laboratory was an accident, not a crime,” O’Brien said. “While we all wish this terrible tragedy had not occurred, there is simply no reasonable explanation for this criminal prosecution — and it’s been flawed from the start.”

In court papers this week, Harran’s lawyers said prosecutors had matched the fingerprints of Brian Baudendistel, a senior special investigator who handled the case for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, with the prints of a teenager who pleaded no contest to murder in Northern California in 1985.

The defense contends that the investigator, whose report formed the basis for the charges, is the same Brian A. Baudendistel who took part in a plot to rob a drug dealer of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine, then shot him. Another teenager admitted to pulling the trigger but said it was Baudendistel’s shotgun.

Baudendistel told The Times this week that it is a case of mistaken identity and that he is not the individual involved in the 1985 case.

Cal/OSHA defended the integrity of the investigation in a statement issued Friday by spokesman Dean Fryer.

“The defendants’ most recent attempt to deflect attention from the charges brought against them simply does not relate in any way to the circumstances of Ms. Sangji’s death or the actual evidence collected in Cal/OSHA’s comprehensive investigation,” it read.

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kim.christensen@latimes.com


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