According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and national child safety experts, an average of 37 children die each year after being left inside enclosed automobiles. In today’s post, an accident lawyer will explain the concept of liability in these largely-unnecessary deaths and the possible legal measures that may be available to the victims’ families. Let’s begin by taking a look at two recent cases.
At about 4:30 p.m. on Friday August 8th, 4-month-old Presley Walker was found dead in a car seat in the back of her grandmother’s car. The girl’s grandmother stated that she had forgotten to drop off the child at her Luther, OK (Oklahoma City metro) daycare center that morning before going to work. According to the National Weather Service, the outside air temperature that day may have reached at least 88 degrees. As of the following week, no charges had been filed.
Case One Discussion
Only those who have lost a child to sudden death, from any cause, can appreciate the mental anguish that little Presley’s grandmother must be feeling. Despite that anguish, there is no doubt that she was negligent by forgetting that the child was in the car. Given that negligence occurred can the child’s parents, or a custodial parent, file a wrongful death lawsuit against the grandmother?
Until relatively recently, children, parents and grandparents could not be sued by a child, parent, or a grandparent because of the legal doctrine offamily immunity. This doctrine has its origin in insurance law, where such lawsuits were prohibited to prevent insurance fraud involving “staged accidents” by a family member who would, in turn, sue the family member’s insurance carrier. Over the years, this doctrine has slowly changed and now, in certain circumstances and in certain states, relatives who can prove negligence or a deliberate disregard for the law may be able to file a lawsuit. Unfortunately, Oklahoma state law is not clear on whether the child’s surviving parent/parents could bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the grandmother on the grounds of negligence.
Myles Hill, aged three, was found dead sometime after 8:30 p.m. on Monday, August 7th, when the child’s great aunt called authorities to report the child missing after failing to be dropped off at her residence by his daycare center. First responders, including police and fire rescue workers, found the boy’s lifeless body on the back floor of a vehicle belonging to Little Miracles Academy of Orlando, FL. A worker at the daycare center told police that she had forgotten to perform a head-count and that the boy had been left inside the hot vehicle on a day when outside temperatures were reported to have been 94 degrees.
Myles became the 32nd child to die in a hot car this year. Five of those deaths have occurred in Florida. Deborah St. Charles, an employee of Little Miracles, was later arrested on a charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child.
Case Two Discussion
The facts in this case differ from Case One on three critical points:
1. The daycare center was responsible for the safety of its client children. That responsibility extended to its employees performing their usual job duties. Thus, the daycare center owed a duty to the child and the child’s immediate family.
2. The State of Florida, through its Department of Children and Families, has regulations that all daycare centers must obey. These regulations include checking company-owned vehicles after transporting children, performing “head counts” during the day, and maintaining logs and other records of head counts.
3. According to news reports, an investigation at the daycare center found that the facility had failed to maintain those records and could not show that their employee had checked the company vehicle on the day of the child’s death. Therefore, given the known facts, the family of little Myles appears to have a strong wrongful death case against Little Miracles Academy on two different grounds.
In addition to the grounds of negligence Florida, among other states, recognizes the legal concept ofculpable negligence. Basically, Florida accepts doctrine that any personal injury which occurs during the commission of a criminal offense is sufficient to establish negligence on the part of the defendant in a civil lawsuit. The criminal offense need not be a felony or even a “major” misdemeanor, the fact that it was a crime under Florida law is all that is required. Both “simple” and “culpable” negligence appear to be present in the case of young Myles.
The death of a child is always tragic, and even more so when that death could have been prevented. In Case One, the available evidence suggests that the child’s death was a tragic, although preventable, accident. In Case Two, the child’s death was even more tragic in that had the daycare complied with the law, that death was preventable.
Questions of liability, and of a family member’s potential liability in child deaths are among the most difficult to establish in civil law. Due to this complexity, anyone suspecting that their child’s tragic death should arrange a consultation with a local accident attorney to review the facts of their case and to explore any legal actions that may be available. As always, only an accident attorney with an understanding of local and state law can offer the best legal advice regarding these tragic deaths.
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