Is it a Crime to Leave a Child in a Car That is Too Hot?

This is the time of the year when babies and young children are left by mistake in cars with the windows rolled up. If the temperature rises beyond a critical level, there is a good chance that the small child can suffer brain damage or die. In most cases, the child has been left strapped into a retaining seat in the rear seat of the car and is unable to wind the windows down or escape by themselves.


What we are talking about here are not deliberate attempts to punish the child, but genuine lapses in memory. The question is whether the death of a child is a crime and whether the parent or parents who left their child in the car should be punished any more than that of the anguish that results from the realization that their actions caused the death of their child.


The circumstances that  lead up to a death of a child in a car that is too hot are varied and it is the precise circumstances that must be taken into consideration when a court is considering a manslaughter charge if this is brought against the person or persons who left the child in the car.


These deaths do not take place except when the temperature is above a certain point. The internal temperature in a car with the windows wound up can quite rapidly rise to dangerous levels within minutes, especially if the car has been left outside exposed to the sun. Even so, the child does have to be left for a considerable period – more than half an hour – for the child to be in danger of dying.


In some cases, the parent has left the child in the car intending to return quite quickly, but does not do so. It may be because they fall asleep, are prevented from returning for some reason or simply forget that their child was left in the car.


There is also a minority of cases where parents have left a child in a car in the sun and have gone to a bar or some other place of entertainment and do not consider what the effects may be on their child.


Death by hyperthermia quite rare despite publicity


Death by hyperthermia is still relatively rare. It may seem to be more common than it is because when a child does die it is likely to be seized upon by the media whereas a child that gets run over may not be reported as readily. The number of deaths of small children between Spring and Fall is between 15 and 35 a year.


Is rear seating partly to blame for forgetting about a child?


Experts who have looked at these types of deaths think that part of the reason why they occur is the introduction of the passenger side airbag in the early 1990s. Apparently, death by hyperthermia was much more uncommon before airbags were fitted to cars. It was thought at an early stage that passenger side airbags could potentially harm small children sitting in the passenger seat if they malfunctioned. Children were then reseated in special retainer seats in the rear of the car. This was just the sort of place where they were out of sight.


There have been attempts to develop special alarms that alert the driver to the child’s presence if they leave the car with the child still in the back seat, but they never became commercially viable. The reasoning was that no sane adult would forget that their child was still in the car. Unfortunately, that premise appears to be unfounded.


Every case where a child death has happened in a hot car is looked at individually. Not all deaths result in a charge of manslaughter or murder. Each case is unique because of the circumstances involved, as well as the location it happens in. Records show that around 40% of deaths do not lead to any charge being brought against the adult concerned. The lifelong guilt that the death is likely to result in is considered punishment itself. In the other 60% of cases, the degree of negligence shown by the adult in question is sufficient to consider it a felony offense and a charge to be laid, usually manslaughter.


Any kind of charge of manslaughter of this kind will be an extremely stressful experience and if this is what has happened to you, you will need a dedicated and experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you against the charge. Ring Abood Law at our Michigan law offices in East Lansing on 517.332.5900 or Birmingham on 248.549.0000.

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