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Tennessee makes it legal to break into a car to save an animal

July 9, 2015

Stories of the “locked in a hot car” variety tend to spread like wildfire on the news. When a person or pet is injured or worse due to being left in a hot vehicle for too long, there’s a collective public outcry over how the perpetrator could have been so ignorant of the risks or have known about them and proceeded anyways.

Unfortunately, despite the numerous warnings from experts broadcast across local news channels every year, cases continue to pop up as soon as the weather starts to get hot. Especially susceptible are those who live in states that do not regularly experience hot weather, and so may be taken off-guard by just how quickly cars can heat up and conduct heat when left in the sun.

Now, the state of Tennessee is taking a step to help prevent pets from becoming the victims of overheating by passing a law that makes it legal to break into a car in order to save an animal that is in danger. In the past, people who have noticed animals on the verge of roasting alive inside a vehicle have had to make a choice between letting an animal continue to suffer (or worse), or helping the animal and opening themselves up to civil lawsuits in which the owners of a damaged vehicle sue for reparations. Unfortunately, these cases are often winnable for the plaintiff as well. Often, these cases are pursued aggressively as the defendant has no actual legal defense. That said, every once in a while someone sees the light and is simply appreciative that their pet has been saved, as is the case of a recent Georgia woman who dropped the charges against a veteran who broke her car window in order to get her dog out on an 80 degree day.

Starting this month, Tennessee will extend its Good Samaritan law to apply to summer scenarios where a citizen may have to break into a vehicle, causing valued damage, in order to save a pet.

The law is purposefully vague, because the nature of these cases is that they can be very subjective. Having a fairly open law should help judges to take things on a case by case basis. The law doesn’t give blanket protection, however, for anyone who wants to bust up a car just because a dog is inside on a warm day. To qualify for the law’s protection, certain steps have to be followed.

First of all, the concerned citizen must have searched for the owner and have notified law enforcement of the situation before taking any kind of further action. The general rule of thumb is that as long as a person is deemed to have acted “reasonably,” as any “reasonable” person would have done, then they are exempt from civil suits resulting from property damage associated with the rescue attempt. Of course, “reasonable,” again, is subjective, but it appears that was the intention from the beginning.

Tennessee joins 15 other states as having laws to specifically protect those who act in similar scenarios.