Mercury Rising: The Silent Epidemic of Hot Car Deaths

As the United States celebrated Independence Day on July 4, 2023, Reuters reported that July 3 was “the hottest day ever recorded globally.” This alarming trend of increasing temperatures around the globe does not bode well for the persistent, silent epidemic of hot car deaths.

Since 1998, nearly 1,000 U.S. children have died as a result of being left in a hot car. On average, 38 children die annually in the U.S. from pediatric vehicular heatstroke (PVH). These grim statistics, compiled by Jan Null of, a meteorologist in the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University, reveal the true danger of leaving children, vulnerable adults, or pets unattended in vehicles.

In just 30 minutes, the length of time of an average sitcom, the temperature inside an enclosed vehicle can rise to life-threatening levels. According to an article in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a study examining temperature increases inside enclosed vehicles found “the average mean increase was 3.2°F per 5-minute interval, with 80% of the temperature rise occurring during the first 30 minutes.”

The study showed an average 40-degree increase in internal temperature for ambient air conditions between 72 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit. In short, cars can heat up rapidly, even in relatively average outside temperatures. Alarmingly, the study also revealed that leaving a vehicle’s windows cracked open had very little effect on the rate of temperature increase inside the vehicle.

What is Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heatstroke “occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down.” Children’s body temperatures rise three to five times faster than adults, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, NHTSA advises that heatstroke can begin when the body reaches an internal temperature of 104 degrees, and a child can die if their body temperature reaches 107 degrees.

Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke is the specific term applied when a minor suffers heatstroke as a result of being in a hot vehicle. However, it is important to note that children are not the only victims of vehicular heatstroke. Vulnerable adults, including elderly and disabled people, as well as animals, can suffer from heatstroke if left unattended in a hot vehicle.

Symptoms of heat stroke in people include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Impaired speech
  • Unconsciousness
  • Excessive sweating or hot skin
  • Dangerously elevated body temperature
  • Seizure
  • Death

Symptoms of heat stroke in animals* include:

  • Heavy panting
  • Glazed eyes
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive thirst
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Profuse salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Deep red/purple tongue
  • Seizure
  • Unconsciousness

*Source: Humane Society of the United States 

How Does a Child Become Trapped in a Hot Vehicle?

For most of us, it is hard to understand how someone could leave a child in a hot vehicle — intentionally or unintentionally. Unfortunately, it happens more often than you would think, and to people from all walks of life. Sometimes, children gain access to a vehicle without their caregiver’s knowledge. Examining media reports of the 949 cases of pediatric deaths resulting from vehicular heatstroke between 1998 and 2022, Meteorologist Jan Null of tabulated the following causes of hot car deaths:

  • Caregiver forgot child in vehicle – 52.61% of total deaths
  • Child accessed vehicle on their own – 25.29% of total deaths
  • Caregiver intentionally left child in vehicle – 20.28% of total deaths
  • Unknown circumstances – 1.81% of total deaths

CA Laws on Leaving Children or Animals Unattended in Vehicles

California Vehicle Code §15620, also known as the  Unattended Child in Motor Vehicle Safety Act, specifically states, “ A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child who is 6 years of age or younger may not leave that child inside a motor vehicle without being subject to the supervision of a person who is 12 years of age or older.” The law further states that children under 6 may not be left alone in a vehicle under the following conditions:

  • The engine is running or the keys are in the ignition
  • There is an obvious risk to the child’s health and safety

Similarly, California Penal Code § 597.7 states that animals may not be left confined or unattended in a motor vehicle if there are conditions present that threaten the health or well-being of the animal. The law allows a person to forcibly enter a vehicle to free an animal if they:

  • Confirm the vehicle is locked, and forcible entry is the only option
  • Reasonably believe the animal is in imminent danger of harm
  • Contact emergency services and/or animal control
  • Use the minimum force required to enter the vehicle
  • Remain with the animal near the vehicle until emergency help arrives
  • Release the animal to emergency responders upon arrival
  • If the above conditions are met, a person cannot be criminally prosecuted in Califofnia for forcibly entering a vehicle to free a trapped animal.

What Can You Do to Prevent Hot Car Deaths?

Technological advances, such as reminders to check the rear seat or carseat, will continue to help combat the problem of vehicular heatstroke, but we cannot rely on technology alone to eradicate the problem. Experts such as NHTSA recommend the following measures for preventing hot car deaths in children and pets:

  • Never leave a child or animal alone in a vehicle, even for a short period of time
  • Always look in the backseat before exiting a vehicle
  • Routinely set a personal item in the backseat to create a habit of checking before you exit
  • Request that your childcare provider contact you immediately if your child does not arrive as expected
  • Routinely lock your vehicles to ensure children cannot access them
  • Store vehicle keys out of reach of children
  • Teach children that vehicles are not for playing in
  • Call 911 immediately if you observe a child locked in a hot car
  • Spread the word on social media; download and share the following resources:

For more information, check out the National Safety Counci’s free on-line training designed to prevent hot car deaths.

Who Is Liable When a Child or Pet Dies in a Hot Car?

When a child, vulnerable adult, or pet dies of heatstroke after being left in a hot vehicle, liability will depend on the specific circumstances of the incident. In the case of a parent simply forgetting a child in the car, liability rests with that parent, and law enforcement will determine whether or not to charge the parent with a crime.

If a caregiver other than the parent, such as a paid daycare worker or friend leaves a child unattended in the car and that child suffers pediatric vehicular heatstroke, the caregiver would be considered the responsible party, and the family of the injured or deceased child could potentially take legal action against the negligent caregiver, whether the child was left in the vehicle intentionally or unintentionally. The same would be true for caregivers of vulnerable adults and animals.

The potentially liable parties for a hot car death can include:

  • Paid Caregivers, including a nanny, babysitter, or daycare worker/provider
  • Other Caregivers, such as family or friends who agreed to supervise the child or pet
  • Automobile manufacturer, if a mechanical, technological, or equipment failure resulted in a child being trapped in a hot vehicle, rather than left unattended in a vehicle

Call the Wrongful Death Lawyers at CZ Law for Help Today!

At Carpenter & Zuckerman, we understand the devastating pain of losing a child or vulnerable adult. The psychological impact of losing a loved one due to vehicular heatstroke can be particularly excrutiating for parents and loved ones of the deceased. During this traumatic time, you need the assistance of an experienced law firm who can guide you through the complicated legal process of securing justice for your family. You can trust the veteran wrongful death lawyers at Carpenter & Zuckerman to come alongside your family and fight unwaveringly on your behalf until justice is delivered.

Although we understand that no amount of financial compensation can ever replace your precious child or loved one, we will fight to secure the maximum compensation possible to ensure their life is honored and you have the resources you need to care for your family in the midst of your grief. Since 1995, the compassionate wrongful death attorneys at CZ Law have been fighting to secure justice for families who have lost their loved ones due to another’s negligence. To date, we have secured over $2 billion in verdicts and settlements for our deserving clients. We would be honored to fight on behalf of your family, and in the name of your loved one.

CZ Law proudly serves clients throughout California and Washington State. With offices in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Orange County (Garden Grove), San Diego, Bakersfield, and Seattle, we are available to handle all of your personal injury law needs.

If you lost a child, vulnerable adult, or pet due to vehicular heatstroke as a result of someone else’s negligence, contact the experienced personal injury lawyers at Carpenter & Zuckerman! Call (310) 273-1230 today or to receive a FREE consultation. contact us online.

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