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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Virginia Tech, UCLA, the Courts, and Accountability

Here in Washington, DC, where I live, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, aka VPI&SU, or VA Tech [Editor’s note: Thanks to the commenter for the correction] shooting massacre and the just-ended trial that grew out of it are heartbreakingly local.  The killer grew up around here, as did 6 of his 32 victims.  Many families hereabouts send their kids to study in Blacksburg, and thousands of alumni live in the metropolitan area.  At strategic points in the athletic calendar, maroon-and-orange Hokies banners go up all over town.

But that hideous day in 2007 has important national implications as well, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out.

Earlier this week, the jury in a case brought against the university by the families of two victims announced its verdict: VA Tech was negligent because it failed to give the university community timely warning of the ongoing massacre, which might have allowed some victims to find safety.  The families of Julia Pryde, who was 21 when she died, and of Washington-area native Erin Peterson, who was 19, each won jury awards of $4 million. 

They will not receive that amount because of a cap of $100,000 on suits against the Virgina state government. But the moral victory is priceless for the families, and the judgment will undoubtedly affect the attitude and actions of academic officials across the country regarding threats or incidents of violence on their campuses. “The verdict sends a strong message to colleges,” the Chronicle states. The university has long claimed that it did the best it could in dreadful circumstances.  The families — and, ultimately, the jury — disagreed. “Higher education is under the microscope now,” says Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Florida, quoted
in the article.  “The accountability level has definitely changed.” 

Why bring you such observations about an incident whose only relation to science is that it happened at a university that focuses on technology?  Because a legal case like this one can have a major impact on the policies universities follow.  And as chemist Paul Brecher recently noted on his ChemBark blog, another case that potentially “has profound implications for chemical academia” is also currently working its way in the courts. He means, of course, the felony charges against the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) and Professor Patrick Harran arising from the January, 2009, death of Sheri Sangji from burns she sustained in a laboratory fire. UCLA, on its own and Harran’s behalf, denies criminal culpability. 

The issues in the UCLA and VA Tech cases differ enormously of course. No one could possibly liken dozens of methodical crimes by a deranged murderer to the unintended calamity that befell Sangji.  But there are some similarities. In both cases, university officials are accused of failing to fulfill an obligation to protect vulnerable people from mortal dangers on their campuses.  In both cases, courts of law are making decisions about responsibility for needless death.  Most importantly, in both cases those decisions are likely to affect the thinking, actions, and policies of university officials across the country for a long time
to come. As with the VA Tech case, university officials everywhere will be watching how this one unfolds with intense interest.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brecher’s statement, except that I think the implications are broader than he suggests.  As the death of Yale University physics student Michele Dufault last April illustrated, the risks from lax safety standards in academic science transcend disciplinary boundaries.

Much of the academic science world is currently on tenterhooks because the arraignment of Harran and UCLA has been postponed twice, which many people say is unusual.  There seems to be no reliable information circulating publicly about what the delay might mean.  We’re
told that negotiations on a settlement are going on, but the delays suggest that they are more difficult than the parties originally anticipated. 

We ought to know more by 11 April, when the judge has scheduled the arraignment, which he says will not be postponed again. (The judge said that at the first postponement, too.)  The
disposition of this case will, like the Virginia Tech verdict, serve as a  strong signal to academic institutions across the country about the degree to which they are responsible for the safety of the people working in their labs — and, by extension, for their science projects generally.  As Brecher writes, Sangji’s “story must not be allowed to be swept under the rug.” 

The UCLA case could be a crucial — and
potentially lifesaving — turning point in the issue of laboratory and scientific safety at universities.  Here’s hoping that, however the outcome affects these particular defendants, universities are made more accountable by the verdict.