Potential legal action against the University by the families of students injured in a lab for Life and Physical Sciences A: “Foundational Chemistry and Biology” last week would likely involve proving the negligence of university employees, said professors at Harvard and Stanford Law Schools.
They added, however, that such action is unlikely because the students do not seem to have sustained lasting injury.
Several students suffered temporary eye injuries, including corneal burn, after looking into an ultraviolet light used to illuminate DNA samples during the LPSA lab. UV exposure might have been avoided had the students worn safety goggles and covered the UV transilluminator with a protective shield.
“You have an injury that is arguably due to the negligence of someone in the university,” said Keith N. Hylton ’82, a visiting law professor from Boston University. “The university could be held liable for the injury caused by that employee.”
Haeun Chang ’15, an LPSA student affected by UV exposure during her LPSA lab, said she did not hear her teaching fellow remind her and many of her classmates to wear their goggles.
“It was just a very chill atmosphere. People were putting on Christmas music, everybody was really looking forward to getting the lab done and over with quickly,” she said. “I suppose everyone was a bit lax.”
Although she admitted that not wearing goggles was probably her fault, she also expressed discomfort that the potential danger of the situation was, as far as she knew, not communicated by lab teaching fellows.
“I would have appreciated some notice that there was UV light and there was potential for danger in the lab,” said Chang. “I felt kind of blindsided that there was no warning—there was nothing in the instructions of the lab.”
According to Alison D. Morantz ’93, a Stanford Law School professor who focuses on workplace safety, a central question to consider in the case is “whether the university met its duty to the students in terms of properly training the professor and the research fellows.”
She added that the incident in LPSA is not a workplace safety issue because University employees were not injured. Instead, she said legal action against Harvard would most likely take the form of a tort claim, in which affected students and their families might argue that Harvard breached its duty to maintain the safety of students.
“One would have to show that a reasonable university [in Harvard’s position] would have taken additional measures” to ensure student safety, she said.
But while Hylton and Morantz agreed that last week’s incident could become a legal liability for Harvard, they added that there would likely be little financial gain from any legal action.
Proving negligence requires considerable resources, Morantz said, and since no students seem to have sustained permanent injuries, financial gain from the case would be very limited.
In addition, the case would be complicated if the students were also responsible for the injuries incurred. “If they received instructions and they didn’t put the goggles on, they could be guilty of negligence themselves,” said Hylton.
“That would lead to a reduction of damages for the students based on some assessment of their [responsibility],” he said.
—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Brian C. Zhang can be reached at email@example.com.