Pets in Hot Cars: Know Your Rights by Adam Cetra, FSELS Legal Intern

Many of us have been there before. You pull into a parking spot on a hot summer day, only to find a dog left unattended in the car next to you. You may be worried about what could happen if you simply move on with your day. According to the Humane Society, when it is 72 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside a vehicle can heat up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit within an hour. When it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 minutes. Further, rolling down the windows has been shown to have little effect on the temperature inside a car. Unlike humans, our pets do not have the ability to sweat to reduce their body temperatures. Being left in a vehicle can lead to a “painful, horrible death.” For example, once a dog’s body temperature exceeds 105 or 106 degrees, their cells start dying, which can lead to seizures or even mass organ failure and death.

Knowing the dangers to the animal, you may even be wondering how people can still do this after we see the same stories every year. As you sit there wanting to help, you may also be left to wonder what you can do in the moment, legally speaking. As with many legal issues, the answer is dependent upon the state in which you live.

Currently, 22 states have laws that make it a crime to leave a pet (or “companion animal”) unattended in a vehicle. In most of these states, the offense is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, but some states have provisions that could result in jail time for the pet owner. Notably, however, many limit the definition of “pet” to cats and dogs. For example, in Maryland, anyone who leaves a cat or dog in a “standing or parked motor vehicle in a manner that endangers the health or safety of the cat or dog” may be subject to a fine of up to $70 under MD Code, Transportation, § 21-1004.1. On the other hand, New Hampshire includes “domestic animals, household pets, and wild animals held in captivity” and makes such an offense equal to “cruelty” under RSA 644:8 and therefore a misdemeanor for a first offense and a class B felony for a second or subsequent offense.

While such provisions punish the pet owner for putting the animal at risk, some states have also enacted provisions intended to protect an animal’s would-be rescuers from liability. In Florida, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, so-called “Good Samaritan” laws grant immunity to any member of the general public if that person follows the proper steps, such as calling 911 before entering the vehicle. New York has a Good Samaritan law pending. Many other states limit that immunity to officials such as police and humane officers. It is important that you familiarize yourself with state and local laws before acting. You never know how a car owner will react if they return while someone is in the act of rescue. Further, you could open yourself up to criminal or civil liability relating to the property damage caused.

Ohio recently passed its own “Good Samaritan” law. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, SB 215 (effective August 29, 2016) will grant “civil immunity for damage resulting from forcible entry of a vehicle ‘for the purpose of removing an animal’ or a minor from the vehicle if certain conditions are met.” These conditions include “having a good faith belief that the animal is in imminent danger, making a good faith effort to call 9-1-1 before entry, not using more force than is reasonably necessary, and making a good faith effort to leave notice on the vehicle’s windshield about the reason for entry into the vehicle.”

Pennsylvania is one state that currently has no “hot car” law on the books. However, three state legislators are hoping to change that. A bipartisan bill is pending that would prohibit pet owners from leaving animals in vehicles in conditions that put their health at risk. The bill would stop short of granting immunity to any member of the general public for property damage caused during rescue, but rather the proposal allows for police and humane officers, after a reasonable search for the owner, to remove a dog or cat from an unattended vehicle if they reasonably believe the animal’s health is in danger.

So what can the average person do to help animals trapped in hot cars? The Humane Society offers some great tips that can be used in any jurisdiction. One option is to take down the vehicle’s license plate number, make, and model and notify the staff or security of nearby businesses, who can make an announcement to find the owner. Calling local animal control or the police department’s non-emergency number is another option. You could also call 9-1-1 if the circumstances warrant it.

An important thing anyone can do is to make sure others are aware of the dangers. The Humane Society offers a downloadable pamphlet for distribution that outlines the dangers of leaving pets in hot cars. Another way to help is to get involved. If you live in Pennsylvania, you can contact your senators to express your support of S.B. 977 and your representatives to express your support of House Bill 1516 or to voice your desire for alternative legislation. If you live in a state that has no “hot car” law, you can contact your state legislators or circulate a petition to push for such legislation.

The main thing we can all do to help is to be aware of these dangers, keep our eyes open, and be prepared for how to react to these situations.