Vehicular Heatstroke for Children & Legal Liability
In some tragically avoidable cases, parents have left a baby or child in their car and returned to find that they have died from heatstroke. Dozens of children die from heatstroke while locked in cars each year. Parents may not realize that the body temperature of a child rises three to five times faster than an adult’s body temperature. When body temperature reaches 104 degrees, a person suffers from heatstroke, and a child may die at 107 degrees.
Parents can take certain precautions to reduce the risk of vehicular heatstroke:
Get in the habit of never leaving your child on their own in the car, even when the air conditioning is on or the windows are open
Check the vehicle before locking it every time that you leave it
Put a note in the front passenger seat to remind yourself about a child in the back seat, or an item like a toy to trigger your memory that a child is there
Leave an item that you need to take with you, such as your purse, in the back seat with the child so that you are forced to check the back seat when you leave
People who are not parents also can help avert these events by locking their car doors and trunk. This will prevent someone else’s child from getting into the vehicle while both the parents and the vehicle owner are absent. If a person other than the child’s parent finds that a child has been left on their own in a locked car, they should promptly rescue them. State laws usually protect people who help others in situations such as these, and some states have enacted laws specifically addressing situations when children have been left in cars.
Good Samaritan Laws
Laws known as “Good Samaritan” laws protect people who help someone else who is injured or facing a risk of harm. The scope of these protections varies by state, but often a person who intervenes will be shielded from criminal charges or liability in a civil lawsuit if their good intentions result in unintentionally adverse consequences. In addition, nearly half of the states have added provisions to their Good Samaritan laws providing protection to people who enter a car to rescue a child, even if they break a window or otherwise damage the car. Sometimes a bystander must call 911 before they intervene to rescue the child, though.
Penalties for Leaving Children in Vehicles
Over 20 states have passed laws prohibiting leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, or have added sections to existing laws on child abuse or neglect that specifically cover this conduct. People who violate this type of law may face criminal charges and penalties. In some cases, leaving a child unattended in a vehicle may even be charged as a felony.
Limits on Criminal Laws
Some state laws apply only to certain people or situations. For example, laws in Florida, Illinois, and Texas require a child to be left in a vehicle for a certain time. Kentucky and Missouri impose penalties only if a child is harmed from being left in the car. Only paid child care providers may be charged in Alabama and Wisconsin.
The majority of states do not have specific laws addressing this issue. However, prosecutors may pursue charges under child endangerment laws against parents or other people who leave children unattended in cars. If a child suffers a tragic death, the adult who was at fault may face homicide charges, potentially including manslaughter.
Someone other than a parent of a child also may face civil liability through a personal injury or wrongful death claim. This would allow the parents of the child to recover compensation. For example, if the child survives, parents could pursue damages for related medical costs and non-economic forms of harm that the child endured, such as pain and suffering and emotional distress. Damages in wrongful death claims would compensate parents for the loss of their relationship with the child.