Each summer, news of children and pets left in hot cars grow, reminding us to be vigilant. According to the National Weather Service, the inside of a vehicle can reach 109 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20 minutes when the temperature outside is 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you ever see a child left unattended in a car, it’s important to act quickly, as heat stroke can occur in a matter of minutes. It is widely accepted that a person may use force—such as breaking a window—to save a child from a hot vehicle, without fear of legal consequence, if they believe the child’s life is in immediate danger.
However, while you may be compelled to act similarly to free a dog from a hot car, the law may not be so forgiving.
Can You Break a Car Window to Save an Animal?
It is more common for pet owners to leave a dog unattended in a vehicle than a child, and on a hot day, an animal is as much at risk of heatstroke as a child.
However, only 13 states, including Wisconsin, currently have a Good Samaritan “hot car law” that allows private citizens to take matters into their own hands to save an animal. The restrictions on this right vary for each state. You can see if your state is on the list here.
If you are in Wisconsin, then you may legally be able to save a domestic animal that is in a motor vehicle. A domestic animal is defined as a dog, cat, or another animal that is kept as a household pet. It does not include farm animals.
You will be immune from civil liability for property damage or personal injury that results from your forcible entry into the vehicle only if all of the following are true:
- You had a good faith belief that the person or domestic animal in the vehicle was in imminent danger of suffering bodily harm unless the person or animal was removed from the vehicle.
- The vehicle was locked, and forcible entry was necessary to remove the person or animal from the vehicle.
- You called 911 or contacted law enforcement, emergency medical services, or animal control before forcibly entering the vehicle.
- You stayed with the person or animal until a law enforcement officer, emergency medical service provider, animal control officer, or another emergency medical responder arrived.
- You used no more force than you reasonably believed to be necessary to enter the vehicle to remove the person or animal or to allow the person or animal to exit the vehicle.
- If you left the scene before the owner or driver of the vehicle came back, you put a notice on the windshield of the vehicle that included your name, telephone number, mailing address, reason for entering the vehicle, and (if you know) the location of the person or animal when you left the scene.
In other states, if you break another person’s car window, the vehicle’s owner could sue for damages, and if property damage exceeds a certain amount, you may face criminal charges for destruction of personal property. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "animals are property in every jurisdiction, so taking an animal from another's vehicle could trigger theft, burglary, trespassing to property, and conversion of property charge—among others.”
What to Do If You See an Animal in a Hot Car
Regardless of where you are, you can:
- Call 911, public safety or a humane officer.
- Know the signs of heatstroke and let the authority you contact know if you fear the animal is in immediate danger. Heatstroke symptoms include excessive panting, seizures, bloody diarrhea, bloody vomiting, and stupor.
- Try to find the owner of the vehicle.
- Shade the animal through the window until authorities arrive.
If you choose to take matters into your own hands to save an animal from a hot car, just know that you may face legal repercussions for doing so unless you do so according to specific terms set out in state law.
The safest course of action is always to call 911. For information about what to do if you see a CHILD left in a hot car, read our article about Vehicle Heatstroke Awareness. For more information about this topic, you can contact the experienced attorneys at Hupy and Abraham by calling 800-800-5678 or by starting a live chat 24/7!