Hot Topic in a Heat Wave

Is anyone liable for heat-related illness and injury?

By Aitken Aitken Cohn

The first week of September was a scorcher. It brought a record-setting heat wave to the southwest—ten consecutive days of often triple-digit temperatures—in what weather experts have called our most severe ever recorded in September.

Last October, after three back-to-back heat waves hit Southern California over the preceding summer, the Los Angeles Times reported:

“Between 2010 and 2019, the hottest decade on record, California’s official data from death certificates attributed 599 deaths to heat exposure. But a Times analysis found that the true toll is probably six times higher. An examination of mortality data from this period shows that thousands more people died on sweltering days than would have been typical during milder weather. All told the analysis estimates that extreme heat caused about 3,900 deaths.”

Southern California’s hot, dry climate alone can cause dehydration and other serious health problems. Heat-related illness and injury range from mild heat cramps and moderate heat exhaustion to heat stroke, which is the most severe and can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, internal organ damage, or even death if left untreated.

Warning signs of heat-related sickness include high body temperature, muscle pain or spasms, stomach ache, excessive sweating, rapid pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, slurred speech, or fainting. The elderly, immunocompromised, and young children are especially vulnerable.

New legislation out of Sacramento, creating an extreme heat warning system, aims at protecting vulnerable Californians from the deadliest heat events.

But the stark reality is that nearly a quarter of residents statewide (about 20% in Southern California) live without air conditioning, especially the elderly and low-income renters in dense and underserved urban areas. Efforts to enact cooling standards comparable to established heating standards have faced resistance.

So is anyone liable for heat-related injury?

There are three main situations in which an at-fault party may be held responsible:

Work. Your employer is responsible for providing a safe work environment, which includes protection from extreme temperatures. Cal/OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard protects outdoor workers by requiring employers to provide water, rest, and shade and training supervisors about protocols and heat-related illnesses. If you get sick because your employer is negligent in meeting these standards, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation.

Supervising children. Suppose a child suffers a heat-related injury from being left in the sun too long or denied adequate hydration in hot conditions. In that case, the responsible party may be liable for damages. Schools, daycare centers, teachers, sports team coaches, after-school program providers, and others who supervise children are responsible for keeping them safe.

In an article about protecting kids playing school sports in extreme weather this August, The Washington Post reported, “heat illnesses are becoming an increasing risk.” Student-athletes are particularly vulnerable during the first weeks of practice in late summer when temperatures soar, and their bodies have not yet adapted to training in the heat. Acclimatization, which takes ten days to two weeks, helps the body sweat more, balance electrolytes to support hydration, expand blood volume to aid in cooling and supply muscles, and lower the heart rate and core temperature. Even then, strenuous exercise in hot conditions is not without risk, and in typically warm climates, the “recommended [wet bulb globe] cutoff temperature for canceling practice is 92 degrees (32.2 Celsius).” Coaches should follow heat acclimatization guidance and expert recommendations to keep those first training sessions under two hours per day and do heavy conditioning in climate-controlled spaces.

Outdoor events. When holding an outdoor event during hot weather, business owners and organizers must plan for and supply heat relief and hydration areas and offer a warning to keep their patrons safe. If an attendee suffers heat stroke at an event without proper cooling provisions, they may be able to sue.

Renters. Tenants may wonder about their home or apartment, which is a complex area of the law. In California, landlords are not required to provide air conditioning. If according to your lease, your landlord is responsible for maintaining the air conditioning unit and fails to do so—or if they do not provide cold/running water during a heat wave—and you suffer a heat-related illness- as a result, you may have a claim.

If you or someone you love has suffered an illness due to extreme heat conditions, you may wonder if you have legal recourse. It’s vital to speak with a qualified attorney. The skilled, experienced, and caring plaintiff’s attorneys at Aitken * Aitken * Cohn can review your case and help you understand your rights.