“The cost of a life is priceless, whether it’s human life or animal life.”
— Sen. Frank LaRose
“This legislation will allow good Samaritans to prevent such tragedies when necessary without hesitation, saving the life of vulnerable children and pets.”
— Sen. Jim Hughes
It seems like we see the headline at least once every summer — somehow a parent drives somewhere with their young child in the car, secured in a car seat, and upon arriving at their destination, they exit the vehicle and forget that the child is there. On a hot, sunny day, the temperature in the car quickly skyrockets and the child’s life is in peril within minutes.
In the best of situations, a good Samaritan happens by and manages to get the child out of the car. In the worst of situations, a life is ended.
Similar headlines are often seen in relation to pets left in vehicles.
Ohio lawmakers have now acted to try to provide some legal protections for those who intervene.
Senate Bill 215, sponsored by Sens. Jim Hughes and Frank LaRose, provides immunity to people who forcibly enter a motor vehicle to prevent harm to a child or an animal. The bill has been signed by Gov. Kasich and will become effective on the 90th day after the governor’s signature, in this case, Aug. 29.
The bill is not without its limitations and it does not provide a blanket immunity for someone to break a car window just because it’s a warm day and there is a dog or a child in the vehicle. In fact, the bill requires six things before a person can claim the civil immunity provided by the statute.
First, the person must make sure that the doors are not simply unlocked and that there is “no other reasonable method” for the animal or child to exit the vehicle. In other words, if the door is unlocked or another window is down, you won’t have immunity if you break in.
Second, the law requires that the person forcing entry to the vehicle must have a “good faith” belief that their intervention is necessary in order to prevent harm to the child or to the animal. That belief also has to be reasonable, based upon the circumstances and information known to the person at the time that they act. This means that if the car is running and there’s a sign in the window that says the air conditioning is on and the dog has water in the car, you likely won’t have civil immunity because your action won’t be viewed as being reasonable under the circumstances.
Third, before you take any action toward forcible entry into the vehicle, you have to first contact law enforcement, a fire department or a 9-1-1 operator. That contact must be made before entry is attempted unless contact is simply not possible. In that case, contact with law enforcement, a fire department or a 9-1-1 operator must be made as soon as possible after the forced entry is made.
Fourth, the person making entry must make a “good faith effort” to leave a note on the vehicle explaining why the forced entry was made, where the animal or child currently is (assuming that they’re not still immediately outside the vehicle) and that the police, fire department or 911 have been contacted. The note must be placed on the windshield of the vehicle and failure to make a “good faith effort” to place the note eliminates the civil immunity.
Fifth, the person who forces entry must remain with the child or the animal, in a safe location, until emergency responders arrive on the scene. The statute makes no mention of the person leaving the child with someone else in a safe location. Thus, it would appear that doing so would eliminate the civil immunity provided by the statute.
Sixth, the law provides that the person making forcible entry into the vehicle can use no more force than is “necessary under the circumstances” to get into the vehicle. The bill also provides a final statement that if the intervener’s actions constitute recklessness or willful or wanton misconduct, then the person is civilly liable for the damage that they cause.
The bill passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature. Virginia and Tennessee already have similar laws on the books.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.