Very few adults realize the extent to which a child is put in danger when left in a hot car. Many assume the child will be safe because the adult will be gone for a short time, or because the car is not hot at the time the adult leaves the child. Most would be surprised to hear that 38 children die from heat stroke each year, on average, after being left alone in a car, and that at least 44 died in 2013. According to Safe Kids USA, children are at far greater risk of heatstroke than adults, as their bodies heat up between three and five times faster than ours.

Though approximately thirty percent of the heatstroke deaths sustained by children occur when the child decided to play in a car and becomes locked inside, another twenty percent results from an adult's conscious decision to leave a child in a car in the belief that the child will be safe from harm while the adult is gone for a short time. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), however, it takes no more than a few minutes for a car's interior temperature to become high enough to be deadly to a child who has been left inside. This can occur even when the outdoor temperature is not particularly hot.

Who is responsible if your child is injured or killed by heatstroke while in a hot car? As is true with all questions of legal liability, the answer will depend on the circumstances of the particular case.

Legal Liability for Children's Heatstroke Injuries and Deaths 

Though some children's heatstroke deaths result from an adult's intent to harm or kill a child, most are due to the negligence of the adult who is caring for the child when the injury or death occurs. In other cases, the negligence of someone other than a caregiver may lead to the child's injury or death.

Negligence of Caregivers  

When someone takes on the responsibility of caring for a child, that person is charged with the duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of the child while the child is under the person's care. This duty is owed by babysitters, nannies, daycare-center employees, and even neighbors or relatives who agree to watch a child in the parents' absence.

If a babysitter or other caregiver knowingly leaves a child in a car while shopping or engaging in other activities and the child is injured by heatstroke as a result, the caregiver may be found liable for the child's injury in an action for negligence. If the child is killed as a result of heatstroke, the caregiver may be liable for the damages suffered by the child's survivors through an action for wrongful death. Under most states' laws, wrongful-death actions may be brought by the child's immediate family members, such as the child's parents and siblings.

In some cases, adults have accidentally left children in cars. The adult may have become distracted and forgotten that the child was in the car. When the adult is a babysitter or nanny who does not generally have a child along when the adult is driving, the adult is more likely to forget the child when exiting the car. This is particularly so when the child has fallen asleep.

Who is responsible when an adult accidentally leaves a child in a car and the child is injured or killed from heatstroke as a result? Under most states' negligence laws, the adult may be found to have been negligent in forgetting the child who has been entrusted to that adult's care. The failure to take precautions to ensure that a child will not be forgotten may be found to constitute a breach of the duty to exercise reasonable care for a child's safety and result in the adult's liability.

Negligence in Allowing Children Access to Cars 

In many cases, a child is injured or killed by heatstroke when an adult has failed to lock a car and the child gains access to the car without the knowledge of the adult. The child may then become locked in the car, particularly if the car is equipped with child safety locks.

Is an adult who fails to lock a car responsible for injuries or deaths to children resulting from the child's access to the car? Under most states' negligence laws, the adult may be found liable for such injuries or deaths under certain circumstances. The failure to lock a car when the adult knew or should have known that children could gain access to the car may be found to constitute negligence on the part of the adult, even if the adult had not been entrusted with the care of the child who is injured or killed.

Do Not Underestimate the Dangers of Leaving a Child in a Car

Today's writer, Jeffrey Killino, is a respected child-injury attorney who has dedicated his practice to keeping children safe and to holding individuals and entities whose negligence and defective products have injured or killed children responsible for their actions. He has achieved national recognition for his work in such cases on major television networks such as CNN, ABC FOX, and the Discovery Channel, including a case that led to an order compelling Mattel, Inc., to provide free lead testing to children who may have been exposed to lead-containing toys. 

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