Is Negligence Alone to Blame in Toddler’s Hyperthermia Death?

For many in Atlanta, this summer began with a toddler’s tragic death and…a question. On June 18th of this year, 22 month old Cooper Harris perished after his father mistakenly left him alone in the family car for seven hours as temperatures at the father’s office park reached their peak. Per the coroner, the Cobb County, Georgia, toddler’s official cause of death was hyperthermia, also known as heatstroke–except that it’s actually turning out to be a bit more complicated than that.

The question on everyone’s minds now is whether this is a case of simple negligence or whether something more sinister may be at play. For one, the father, Ross Harris, breakfasted with his son at a local Chik-fil-A and strapped him into his rear-facing car seat mere minutes before driving less than a mile to his office at Home Depot and leaving his son in the car. With surveillance video ostensibly showing the father returning to the car briefly at lunchtime (yet allegedly not discovering his son’s body until 4 pm) and an investigation into the father’s work computer revealing ominous research into how it long it takes an animal to die in a hot car, concerned citizens are crying foul – as are the police. After being questioned, the mother also purportedly admitted conducting similar searches all because, she claimed, she and her husband both feared making a mistake of epic proportions and wanted to learn what they could do to avoid it. Their proactive plan to educate themselves, however, seems to have backfired in the worst way imaginable.

So what information, exactly, is available on the information superhighway regarding heat stroke deaths? What might The Harris’ searches have revealed?

For one, death by hyperthermia poses a very real, yet preventable, danger to both the elderly and small children–particularly during the summer months and even when the windows are down. In fact, leaving a child alone in a sweltering car for even a few minutes can foment a casualty. According to WebMD, Hyperthermia occurs when the child’s body temperatures rises and remains above the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Allowed to go on too long, the brain’s temperature control function may be compromised, resulting in a variety of symptoms such as dizziness, disorientation, confusion, agitation, seizure, loss of consciousness and ultimately death.

In light of this most recent case, it seems everyone is offering up tips for other parents can avoid a similar tragedy and personal injury attorneys are just as concerned. Some of the most prevalent tips are as follows:

•Make a practice of making no exceptions. Never leave a child alone or unattended in a vehicle.

•Educate yourself. While the temperature outside of the car may just be 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature inside of the vehicle increases quickly within the first 30 minutes, and can get up to 40 degrees warmer than outside temperatures.

•If you see something, say something. If you spot a child alone in a car, don’t hesitate to call for assistance, and if you notice a child in distress due to heat, make every effort to remove them from the car as soon as possible.

•If you fear forgetting your child in your car, try the “shoe trick”. After you have placed your child in their car or booster seat, also place your left shoe beside the child. That way, you’ll be able to drive, but will have to retrieve your shoe and child before exiting the car.

No parent wants to face the possibility of losing their child, especially in such a horrific manner, and while most parents will never intentionally leave their child behind, about 14 percent have admitted to doing so, while another 11 percent admit to forgetting their child in their vehicle. ( Nearly 1 in 4 parents of a child under 3 years old has left their child in a car – and it can be an easy enough thing to do when a child is not yet old enough to remind an adult of their presence.

The true solution? Practice operating with an abundance of caution when traveling with or transporting your children from location to location.

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