Heat Stroke Victim
A fifty six year old, severely mentally disabled woman baked to death as she was trapped in a car on the afternoon of August 27, 2007. She suffered one of the most horrific, terrifying deaths imaginable as she helplessly, sadly sat in the abandoned car and roasted in the hot, August, Las Vegas heat. She was under the care of Defendants, a group home facility, when she died.
On August 27, 2007 our client was a resident at a home for people with developmental disabilities, and had been there for over ten years. She was in the facility due to her diagnosis of schizophrenia, disorganized continium (sic) and mental retardation. As part of her daily routine, she had been transported to a day work facility earlier that day where she would have the opportunity to socialize with other people, to the extent she was able. At 2:00 PM every day a bus would pick up our client and other residents to return them to the group home. She was last seen sometime prior to 2:00 PM just before she was to be picked up. She did not get on the bus as scheduled and did not arrive at the group home at 2:30 PM as she was supposed to do.
Even though our client did not get on the bus at 2:00 PM, and did not return to the group home on the bus at 2:30 PM, it was not until approximately 5:00 PM that (1) two people from the group home first went back to the work facility to begin searching for her or (2) 911 was called to report her missing. The attendants at the home knew it was not safe for our client to be by herself. In fact, she had a history of “wandering and unsafe behavior” which led to the determination that she needed supervision on a 2 to 1 ratio, which meant that at all times, one employee was required to supervise our client and only one other patient at a time. Because of her level of mental retardation, the staff at the home understood it was not safe to leave her alone.
Ultimately, after more than four hours, she was found inside a parked car in the parking lot of the work facility. At 6:25 PM, our client was found dead in an abandoned car parked less than fifty feet from the front door of the work facility. When she was found, she was fully clothed and was wearing her adult diapers. She had vomited all over herself prior to her death which had dried on her chest and mouth. She was found sitting in the front passenger seat of the car. Although the car was not locked, as it turns out, the door on the front passenger’s side, as well as the driver’s side door in the front and rear, were broken and could not be opened from the inside. Due to our client’s disability, she was unable to help herself once she got stuck inside the car and she died a slow, agonizing death over the course of the hot August afternoon.
The group home was sued by her family for their negligence. The thrust of the home’s defense was that our client died a very quick, painless death. To support their case, they hired a doctor to so opine. Our challenge was to try to accurately portray our client’s final hours. We contacted Dr. Richard Gonzalez, one of the country’s leading experts on the effects of heat on the human body. Dr. Gonzalez had been a professor at UC Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard. He spent most of his life working with the US Department of Defense studying the effects of climate and environmental factors on the human body. His research was instrumental in the development of numerous protocols to enable our soldiers to withstand the rigors of dramatic climate differences around the world. He was instrumental in developing the proper clothing for our soldiers in Project Desert Storm and the Iraq Invasion.
Dr. Gonzalez agreed to assist us, but there was one problem we had to first solve. We needed to know, with a fair degree of accuracy, the temperature inside the car during the time our client was trapped. Here is what we knew:
1. The outside weather measurements for this time interval, i.e., air temperature, humidity, wind, etc. which information was provided by the National Weather Service.
2. The make, model and color of the car, a 1988 BMW 525, four door sedan, gold in color with tan leather interior.
3. The approximate time she entered the car on August 27, around 2:00 PM, and the time she was found, 6:25 PM.
4. The exact location of the car, i.e., on unshaded pavement, facing due east.
5. Our client’s physical information, i.e., her height, weight, age, clothing.
In order to determine the temperature inside the car while our client was trapped we devised an experiment. First, we located a car identical to the gold 1988 BMW 525, which we purchased. Next, we retained a solar expert at UNLV, Dr. Chris Halford, to coordinate and manage the study. The experiment was to be run over the course of sixteen days in August in order to duplicate as nearly as possible the weather conditions and the angle of the sun. We chose a location near Dr. Halford’s ongoing solar energy experiments for its similarity to the actual location. We then parked the car in the same position, facing due east, in an unshaded area of the paved parking lot. At this point, we had accurately replicated the known factors.
With Drs. Gonzalez and Halford, we identified the type of measuring instruments needed. Special thermometers were purchased and hung at various points inside the vehicle. Gauges to measure humidity were also hung inside the car. Outside the car, similar instruments were placed on a mast near the car to record the outside weather measurements. In addition, all of the information was duplicated and backed up with a DA/data sensor that measures and records dry bulb temperatures, natural wet bulb temperatures, globe temperature, integrated WGBT and relative humidity. All of these instruments were digital and the lead wires were connected to a special computer that measured and recorded the measurements at one minute intervals. With this equipment, we were able to precisely record the relevant weather measurements each day for sixteen days.
Since it was known that our client entered the car at approximately 2:00 PM, the instruments were turned on each day at 12:30 PM in order to give us baseline measurements. At 2:00 PM each day, the passenger door was opened briefly to simulate the opening and closing of the car door that would have occurred when our client entered the car. The measurements were continuously recorded until 6:30 PM each day.
The measurements we recorded were then compared to the weather data recorded daily by the National Weather Service. Based upon all of this information, a graph was created that would allow us to determine the inside temperature of the car based upon the outside temperature. We then plotted the weather information from the day of the incident onto the graph to determine the precise temperature inside the car during the time our client was trapped.
With these detailed temperature measurements, at one minute intervals, Dr. Gonzalez was able to create a computer modeling program that would show exactly what was happening, from a physiological perspective, at each minute of our clients suffering. Details were presented of what was occurring with her vital organs as the minutes passed. We were able to scientifically demonstrate the body’s processes and failures. Dr. Gonzalez was able to explain how at each step of the deterioration process how our client was suffering. Ultimately, his report led to a resolution of the case.
Our work on this project has served as more than an opportunity to benefit our clients. Our study has been recognized as one of the definitive experiments on the effects of extreme heat on the human body. One of the reasons our study is so important is that we were able to demonstrate, with a high degree of accuracy, the physiological deterioration of the human body at precise intervals. Unique to our situation is the fact that we had an autopsy that established the physiological findings, coupled with exact the climatic and environmental conditions that caused the death. Our work was published in the Journal of Thermal Biology in December 2010. (Click here to view the article)
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