Free the Animal, Don’t Get Sued

State with good samaritan laws for saving dogs with heat stroke.
By Brooke Faulkner, July 2016, Updated July 2020
good samaritan laws for dogs trapped in cars

Last month Ohio passed a law making it legal for a good samaritan to break their way into a locked vehicle saving a heat-stroked animal. It joins a small list of states—Florida, New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin—that grant this kind of legal immunity to do-gooders.

While 22 states have laws that specifically make it illegal to leave a dog trapped in a hot car, the actions that a passerby can legally take are less than intuitive. If a woman walking down the street spots a Basset Hound locked in a hot car, she should be able to do whatever necessary to save the pup and not worry about getting sued for breaking a piece of glass. But the “not getting sued” part is where things get tricky.

The nitty-gritty of the law differs from state to state—in some states only an animal control or police officer can break the window; in others, any concerned citizen can do it under pressing circumstances. In New Jersey and West Virginia though, no one, not even animal control, can legally free a dying dog. Even though it is illegal in those states to leave a dog in a hot car, according to the letter of the law anyone who saves the dog could get slapped with criminal charges. It’s time to revisit that one, dear lawmakers.

The idea here is not to go around smashing windows of course, unless it is absolutely necessary. Here is the Humane Society of the U.S. list of the very first steps you should take if you see an animal in distress in a parked car.

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  • Take down the car's make, model and license-plate number.
  • If there are businesses nearby, notify their managers or security guards and ask them to make an announcement to find the car's owner. Many people are unaware of the danger of leaving pets in hot cars and will quickly return to their vehicle once they are alerted to the situation.
  • If the owner can't be found, call the non-emergency number of the local police or animal control and wait by the car for them to arrive.
  • In several states good samaritans can legally remove animals from cars under certain circumstances, so be sure to know the laws in your area and follow any steps required.

That last point brings us to the demystification section of this article. It is important to know the laws in your state. Below is a very simple overview of who can use reasonable force, aka break a window, when they encounter an animal locked inside a hot car. If you live in a state where everyday citizens are granted this action, be sure to click on the “guidelines” link to read about the required steps you must take in order to avoid legal trouble. 

Alabama
 Nobody
Louisiana
Nobody
Ohio
 
Effective Aug. 29 2016
Good Samaritans
Guidelines
Alaska
Nobody
Maine
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Oklahoma
Nobody
Arizona
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Maryland
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Oregon
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Arkansas
Nobody
Massachusetts
Nobody
Pennsylvania
Nobody
California
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Michigan
Nobody
Rhode Island
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Colorado
Nobody
Minnesota
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
South Carolina
Nobody
Connecticut
Nobody
Mississippi
Nobody
South Dakota
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Delaware
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Missouri
Nobody
Tennessee
Good Samaritans
Guidelines
D.C.
Nobody
Montana
Nobody
Texas
Nobody
Florida
Good Samaritans
Guidelines
Nebraska
Nobody
Utah
Nobody
Georgia
Nobody
Nevada
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Vermont
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Hawaii
Nobody
New Hampshire
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Virginia
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Idaho
Nobody
New Jersey
Nobody
Washington
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Illinois
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
New Mexico
Nobody
West Virginia
Nobody
Indiana
Nobody
New York
Good Samaritans
 Guidelines
Wisconsin
Good Samaritans
Guidelines
Iowa
Nobody
North Carolina
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
Wyoming
Nobody
Kansas
Nobody
North Dakota
Law Enforcement or
Animal Control Officer, etc
 
Kentucky
Nobody
  
*The definition of “Animal” also varies from state to state. Are we talking dogs, cats, or lizards here? All information is current as of June 2016.  If you’re in the position of needing to take action and have any questions, consult The Animal Legal Defense Fund for a recent list.

A gentle reminder to all of us pet lovers: be vigilant, but don’t be overzealous. We all want what’s best for the animals. Imagine you’re moving across the country with your cat and you leave her in the car with the AC on at a rest stop while you run in to buy her a bottle of water. You return to your car two minutes later to find your window smashed and your terrified kitty in the arms of a total stranger. It goes without saying: this isn’t why these laws exist and it isn’t what we’re going for.

We’re going for social responsibility on all fronts. 

Thank you for caring for the animals of all shapes and sizes in our world. Have you had any personal experiences rescuing an animal?

I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments and am looking forward to the conversation!