Spokane County prosecutors charged a Post Falls woman with vehicular homicide Tuesday in the death of her infant daughter, who was severely injured by a car’s airbag while riding in a rear-facing car seat in Spokane.
If convicted, it could be the first time in Washington a parent has been held accountable for the death of a child stemming from an improperly installed car seat, prosecutors and police say.
Eileen Jensen’s daughter Chloe was riding in a loosely installed, rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat during the 2006 collision, police said. The car’s airbags deployed, which – combined with the impact of the crash – caused the baby’s injuries.
She died from her injuries 10 months later, but “her brain stopped developing that day,” said Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller.
In a court document, Jensen, now 24, says she “blacked out” just prior to the collision.
The charge was filed in Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday, said Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady. Jensen has not been arrested. She is scheduled for arraignment Feb. 18.
The case had been under review with the prosecutor’s office for about a year, authorities said.
“We reviewed police reports, looked at the statute and discussed it with my supervisor,” Brady said. “It fits the criteria” for the charge.
On March 22, 2006, Jensen was driving her 2001 Honda Accord on North Freya Street with her three daughters. According to court records, Jensen caused a three-car crash when she smashed into the back of a stopped minivan. Chloe was in the front seat while Jensen’s other daughters were in the back, also improperly secured, police said.
When Jensen’s car crashed, its passenger-side airbag deployed and caused Chloe’s head trauma, authorities said.
Putting a child’s head in front of an air bag is like “putting the child’s head in front of an explosion,” said Alan Korn, director of public policy for Safe Kids USA, a national nonprofit organization focused on preventing childhood injuries.
Child deaths caused by airbags during collisions are extremely rare, Korn said. Since a major educational campaign was launched in the mid-1990s, the incidents have dropped tremendously.
According to Washington law, all children under 13 must sit in a vehicle’s rear seat when practical.
After the crash, a witness told police Jensen said she had the baby in the front seat because she only planned to drive a couple of blocks, according to a statement of facts filed in Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday. Witnesses also told police Jensen was driving erratically right before the crash, according to the court document.
The Honda was “racing out ahead of me and other traffic, but there were cars stopped up the road: I couldn’t see why they were stopped, but no one was movin’,” Matthew Dixon told police. “I started to slow down, and then saw her crash into the back of that other car.”
Jensen, who lives in Post Falls, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. In the court document, Jensen said she was sleep-deprived, which may have contributed to her blacking out. She also told police she regularly put Chloe in the front seat. Regarding the airbag, “it just wasn’t something I was thinking about,” she said.
Washington state law says a driver can be charged with vehicular homicide for causing the death of another person by driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in a reckless manner, or without regard for the safety of others.
“This is an area of prosecutorial discretion,” Korn said. “Criminal negligence has to be present. In most circumstances, I feel the loss of a child is punishment enough. That’s a tough one. It does happen, but it is not common.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.