Tennessee legalizes breaking into cars to save pets

Reuters/Luke MacGregor
It is now legal in Tennessee to break into a car to save an animal. A new state law extended the existing immunity for ‘Good Samaritans’ who save children from dying of overheating to pet rescuers as well, reportedly the first US state to do so.

Introduced by state representative David Hawk (R-Greeneville), House Bill 537 “adds animals to the existing procedure that confers immunity from liability on a person for damage caused by breaking into a locked vehicle for the purpose of extracting a child in danger.”

Leaving children or pets in locked vehicles is a concern during the hot summer months, when temperatures inside cars can exceed 100F (37C) within just 10 minutes. Statistics kept since 1998 show an average of 38 child deaths from overheating every year.

"You put a pet in a car or a child in a car and you have the windows up and it's like an oven, and they can die in 10 minutes," Dr. Craig Prior of the Murphy Road Animal Hospital told WKRN.

Sixteen US states have laws against leaving animals unattended in cars, but so far only Tennessee has moved to encourage private citizens to rescue the animals as they would children.

Hawk told the Johnson City Press he was moved to introduce the bill after hearing of a case where one dog died and another was seriously hurt after it took police too long to break them out of a parked car that was overheating.

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While the vehicle’s owners are being charged with animal cruelty, Hawk wanted to prevent more agonizing animal deaths. He believes HB 537 is the first law in any US state that gives pet rescuers immunity from liability for property damages.

“It's good for folks to know that they have this ability to take action should a possible tragic event happen,” Hawk said.

The new law went into effect July 1. To qualify for protections, the rescuer needs to take specific steps, including searching for the vehicle’s owner and notifying the police.

“If you act reasonably, as any reasonable person would respond, you will not be at fault to save a life,” Nashville Fire Department Chief of Staff Mike Franklin told WKRN. “You will not be at any fault to save a life and/or animals.”