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How a Hot Car Can Lead to Tragedy

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The hot Illinois summer is upon us, and that means it’s time to break out the shorts and turn up the air conditioning. Unfortunately, summer also brings with it the potential for serious tragedy in an unexpected place. More than 36 kids die in hot cars every year, according to CNN, and the hottest months inevitably bring the highest numbers of incidents.

How These Deaths Occur

Most often, the cause of death for a child left inside a hot car is HEATSTROKE, a result of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia occurs when the body temperature rises greatly above normal. Vehicular heatstroke occurs when this rise in body temperature begins to cause organ failure, often resulting in unconsciousness and later death.

In serious cases of heatstroke, the body temperature rises to over 104 degrees. A child experiencing heatstroke may suffer from an altered mental state or behavior, sweating, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, rapid breathing, racing heart rate, and headache (Mayo Clinic).

Over half of vehicular heatstroke victims in the United States are under the age of 1, unable to effectively communicate their suffering, let alone call for help. Research from child car safety advocates Kids and Cars notes that the prevalence of rear-facing car seats may help account for the young age of victims. When they’re facing the rear, it is easier to forget about children because the driver cannot directly see them.

Children are especially at risk for heatstroke due to their biology, as their body temperatures rise three to five times faster than adults. This fact, combined with how quickly a car’s temperature can rise—20 degrees in 10 minutes—puts children in a dangerous situation if left unattended.

Strategies to Prevent Vehicular Heatstroke

Vehicular heatstroke usually happens when children (or the elderly) are accidentally left unattended in a hot car, or get into a car on their own and can’t or don’t get out. Accidents like these can happen to anyone—it’s a simple mistake that otherwise good parents can make. Here are some easy strategies to prevent it from happening to you:

  • “Look before you lock” – a catchy saying to remind yourself to survey your vehicle before exiting.
  • Place your cellphone or other important item in the backseat so that you are forced to look back before exiting your car.
  • Always keep your vehicle locked – even in the garage.
  • Make sure your childcare provider knows to call if your child does not arrive as scheduled – this could alert you to an emergency more quickly

Unfortunately, you can’t enforce these rules for everyone.

Hot Car Deaths and the Law

In August 2017, a 3-year-old boy was found dead inside a van parked in a daycare parking lot in 90-degree weather in Orlando. The boy was left inside the van for an entire day after a daycare employee used the van to transport a group of children from one location to another.

After the child’s death, the daycare was permanently closed and the van driver was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child (CNN). This charge is a first-degree felony in Florida, and is punishable by up to life in prison, life on probation, and a $10,000 fine.

Illinois is one of 19 states with an active law that makes it illegal to leave a child alone in a vehicle. Illinois regulation (720 ILCS 5/12‐21.6), “Endangering the life or health of a child,” states that it is against the law for a person to leave a child 6 years of age or younger unattended in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes. Unattended is defined as either not accompanied by a person 14 years of age or older, or accompanied by a person 14 years of age or older but out of sight of that person.

A violation of this law is considered a Class A misdemeanor, and if the violation causes a death, it is a Class 3 felony, punishable by a prison term of two to 10 years.

Liability After a Hot Car Incident

Caregivers have a duty to ensure the safety of children under their care. Even when it’s an accident (which hot car deaths almost always are), caregivers are still responsible for the consequences of their negligence.

While someone who leaves a child in a hot car may be subject to criminal charges, the family of the victim may also want to pursue a civil case, the same way they can after a child is injured at school. In civil court, a case like this would fall under personal injury or wrongful death, where damages are sought against a party for causing an injury or death. After a 5-year-old died in a daycare van in West Memphis in 2017, his family sued the daycare for $135 million (WREG).

While no lawsuit can bring back a child or undo serious harm, cases like these can help families incite change in care rules, regulations, and policies to better protect other children. As such, we applaud them.

Have a legal question about an injury to your child? Feel free to call the Belleville personal injury lawyers at Hipskind & McAninch, LLC. Injuries cost money, and if an injury was caused or allowed by someone else, we don’t think that you should have to pay the bills. There’s absolutely no cost to speak to us, and we have no time limits for our consultations. If you have questions, we’ll get them answered. Call (618) 641-9189 today.

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