The cost of legal representation paid by the University of California at Los Angeles to defend itself and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran from felony charges in the lab death of his Indian American assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji are nearing $4.5 million, the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 16.
According to documents obtained through the Times’ California Public Records Act request, nearly five-dozen defense attorneys, paralegals and others have billed for work on the case.
One attorney charged $792,000 and at least four other lawyers billed more than $500,000 each — all for pretrial work.
UCLA said in a statement Oct. 15 that the expense was justified. “We defended ourselves and our faculty member, as was our right and obligation, using funds in a system-wide self-insurance program,” the university told the Times.
Sangji, 23, wasn’t wearing a protective lab coat in Harran’s lab Dec. 29, 2008, when a plastic syringe she was using to transfer t-butyl lithium from a sealed container to another came apart, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. She suffered extensive burns and died 18 days later.
Harran and UCLA contended that Sangji, who earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry five months before starting work in Harran’s lab, was an experienced chemist who chose not to wear protective gear and was trained in the experiment she was performing.
In 2011, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Harran with three felony counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards.
Charges against U.C. were dropped in July 2012 after the regents agreed to follow safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name. UCLA has since spent $20 million on enhancing lab safety, the Times reported.
Harran was ultimately charged with four felonies related to failing to provide proper safety training and protective gear for lab workers.
He struck a plea deal in June 20 with prosecutors. He admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to develop and teach an organic chemistry course for inner-city students for five summers, perform 800 hours of community service in the UCLA Hospital system and pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn Center. If he fulfills the terms, the charges will be dismissed after five years.
Harran declined to comment on the legal fees question, the Times said. In a statement, his lawyers said he “has met and will continue to meet” the requirements of the plea deal.
Sangji’s sister, Naveen, who earlier called the sanctions against Harran and UCLA “barely a slap on the wrist,” told the Times, “Had UCLA spent even a tiny fraction of this money and effort on laboratory and chemical safety training and fire resistant gear…Sheri might still be with us today.”