Rare Prosecution of Professor in Los Angeles University Workplace Death

In an exceedingly unusual case of Los Angeles workplace danger, a chemistry professor at UCLA is facing criminal charges following a lab fire that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old assistant.

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Orange County employment attorney Houman Fakhimi has been closely following the developments of this case, which stem from an incident in 2008. The professor is facing an upcoming arraignment on several counts of willfully violating the standards set forth by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Here’s what reportedly happened, according to the L.A. Times:

The assistant was in the lab in late December 2008 handling a syringe to transfer a chemical from one container to another. She apparently was not wearing a protective lab coat. The syringe somehow came apart in her hands. The chemical compound, known as t-butyl lithium, catches fire when exposed to oxygen. The assistant suffered severe burns over half her body and died less than a month later.

The chemistry professor, who was overseeing the program, as well as several others within the chemistry department, have been accused of not reporting unsafe working conditions, not requiring appropriate safety gear and clothing and not offering enough safety training.

The 42-year-old professor is facing nearly five years in prison, while the regents of the program could be fined as much as $4.5 million.

The case has raised a host of concerns about safety at the university, as well as the training and supervision provided by the professor, considered a prominent figure in the field. He had joined the school just a few months prior to the incident.

The Times reports that this is the first case of its kind, in which someone in the academic field is charged criminally as the result of a death in the lab. Our Orange County employment attorneys realize that all employers have a responsibility to do everything possible to protect workers. Usually, we don’t think of fatal workplace accidents as happening outside of perhaps the construction industry. Clearly, though, that’s not the case, and the legal system is now pushing for accountability.

Last year, the college was fined nearly $32,000 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, saying the assistant wasn’t properly trained and wasn’t wearing the right gear.

The university defends the professor, calling the charges “outrageous” and “appalling,” and saying the assistant had been properly trained, and that the incident was simply an experiment that went tragically wrong.

An attorney for the family vehemently disagrees, saying that the failure of the professor and school as a whole to implement appropriate precautions led to an extremely painful death for the assistant, a Pakistani native and recent college graduate. Furthermore, the attorney said, the factors that led to her death were not accidental – they were negligent.

The professor is talking a possible plea deal with prosecutors, though it’s not yet clear what the terms of that may be.

If you need to speak to an employment attorney in Los Angeles about an issue of workplace danger, discrimination, sexual harassment, wage dispute, or a violation of a worker’s rights, contact the Employment Law Team for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights. Call (877) 529-4545.

Additional Resources:
UCLA says it will fight ‘outrageous’ felony charges in fatal lab fire, By Kim Christensen, LA Times

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