Proposed state bill: Passersby could break into hot cars to save kids, pets

PHOENIX — Saying good Samaritans deserve legal protection, a veteran state lawmaker wants to provide immunity from lawsuits for people who break into hot vehicles to rescue a trapped animal.

And kids, too.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was approached by the founder of Don’t Leave Me, an organization that tries to protect pets whose owners have left them behind in the car. He said that Debra Nolen, whose activities so far have involved things like public service announcements, wanted legislation to allow bystanders to do more than call the police.


The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT – A study counting children who died after being left unattended in hot cars from 1998 to 2016 found that Arizona had 31 deaths, the fourth-highest in the U.S.

The three states that ranked higher, Texas, Florida and California, also have a higher population than Arizona.

Twenty states have so-called “unattended child” laws, which are used in the prosecution of people responsible for leaving a child in a hot car who then dies. Arizona is not one of those.

Arizona child deaths in hot cars since 2010:

2016: 1, in Peoria in October

2015: 2, in Phoenix, in April and August

2014: 2, in Phoenix and Tucson, in October

2013: 2, in Scottsdale, in August and September

2012: 1, in Mesa, in July

2011: None

2010: 3, Phoenix in June; Chandler in July; and Kingman in September

For the U.S. overall, there were 700 heatstroke deaths of children left in cars between 1998 and 2016.

Source:, Jan Null, Certified Consulting Meteorologist

Kavanagh, who has been an animal-rights advocate, agreed to sponsor the legislation spelling out there is no civil liability for those who act in good faith.

“They already provide exemptions for first responders and emergency services people, but not ordinary people,’’ he noted.

“Usually, it’s the ordinary people who stumble upon these things first,’’ Kavanagh continued. “So it seemed reasonable to provide a blanket coverage as long as the person acts reasonable.’’

Prescott Valley Police Chief Bryan Jarrell said the bill makes him uneasy.

“Police officers have a great deal of training and I would be concerned that citizens may overreact, or react too quickly, resulting in damage to a person’s vehicle,” Jarrell said. “Another concern is that although a person may be exempt from liability, that is not going to help them when an angry car owner confronts someone who just broke out their window.”


Kavanagh noted that Nolen was pushing for protection for animals. But he figured that, given similar situations that occur with children, they, too, should be included within the legislation.

“Both situations are important,’’ he said.

“We applaud legislative effort to protect citizens who may find themselves in a situation where, without quick action, a pet may suffer death from heat exposure within a closed and locked car,” said Dr. Leo Egar, chief veterinarian at the Yavapai Humane Society. “Though the need for members of the public to take this extreme level of action is rare, sadly, every year there are deaths that result from pets left in parked cars.”

As crafted, SB 1001 requires a “good faith belief’’ that the child or animal is “in imminent danger of suffering physical injury or death’’ unless removed from the vehicle.

But that, by itself, is not enough. Before breaking in, the person would have to notify authorities, whether police, emergency medical services or animal control. And then the person has to remain with the child or animal rescued until help arrives.

Nolen said the idea originally started as a public service class project when she was teaching health ethics at Chandler Gilbert Community College. It resulted in some public service announcements, a website and even distribution of a chart to translate the outside air temperature to how hot it gets in a vehicle.

The result of one of those PSAs with Fountain Hills Mayor Linda Kavanagh that Nolen connected with her husband.

A report by Jan Null with the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University showed that 39 children had died of heat stroke through October this year. That compares with 24 for all of 2015.

The American Veterinary Medical Association says “hundreds’’ of pets die each year from heat exhaustion because they are left in parked vehicles.

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