Arizona's Hot Car Law

According to the organization KidsandCars.org, every year across the United States an average of more than three dozen children age 14 and under die of heatstroke after being left unattended in a motor vehicle. An average of one or two young children dies in this tragic manner every year here in Arizona.

Distracted parents are often to blame. In March of 2018, a 20-year-old Pinal County woman was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of child abuse after her children – a 2-year-old boy and a 10-month-old girl – were discovered deceased in her car. In May of 2018, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office launched a “Don’t Leave Me Behind” Vehicular Heatstroke Awareness Campaign designed to remind Arizonans that leaving a child or a pet unattended inside a hot vehicle is potentially not only fatal to the child or the animal but also a serious criminal act.

Given how dangerous it is for young children and pets to be left unattended inside a hot car, the State of Arizona recently enacted a new law to protect passersby from being sued if they cause damage to a locked car (for example by breaking a window) in an effort to rescue a suffering child or pet. This article describes Arizona’s new “Hot Car Law” and also discusses why the new law adopted.

Why do hot cars pose a health threat to children and pets?

A study published in 2018 by Arizona State University and the UC San Diego School of Medicine determined that if a car is parked in the sun on a hot summer day, its dashboard can reach a temperature of 160 degrees in about one hour. At 160 degrees, human skin suffers third-degree burns. At 160 degrees, eggs fry. At 160 degrees, young children – and pets – are therefore very likely to either (a) be injured after coming into contact with a hot surface or (b) experience hyperthermia (which is when the core body temperature rises to a dangerous level).

Young children are especially vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat. Internal injuries can occur when a child’s body temperature is less than 104 degrees. Research has shown that a child trapped in a car that is parked in the sun can reach a body temperature of 104 degrees in approximately one hour and that even a child trapped in a car that is parked in the shade can reach a body temperature of 104 degrees in less than two hours. The resulting heatstroke can cause brain and organ damage.

Like young children, animals such as dogs can suffer heatstroke inside a hot car. In fact, dogs can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in only 15 minutes.

What are some of the symptoms of heatstroke?

The symptoms of heatstroke in children include:

  • high core body temperature
  • increased heart rate
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • muscle cramps
  • headache
  • altered mental state or behavior (for example, confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, and seizures)
  • flushed (red) skin
  • nausea and/or vomiting

The symptoms of heatstroke in dogs include:

  • increased core body temperature
  • increased heart rate
  • excessive panting or drooling
  • altered behavior (for example, restlessness or lethargy)
  • wobbly gait (difficulty standing or walking)
  • reddened gums
  • purple tongue
  • glazed eyes

What safety tips should all vehicle drivers follow when we have children or pets in our cars?

Whenever we drive with a child or a pet in our vehicle, we should always:

  • remove the child or the animal from the vehicle when we exit the vehicle – because air-conditioning systems can fail and the surfaces and the air temperature inside a vehicle can become dangerously hot even if the windows are rolled down
  • check the back of the vehicle before locking the door and walking away
  • place an item that we will need to take with us (such as a cell phone or a purse) in the back seat of the vehicle next to where the child or the pet is sitting so that we are forced to access the back seat before we leave
  • keep a large stuffed animal or other eye-catching memento in the child’s car seat, to be placed in the front passenger seat of the vehicle whenever the child is placed in the car seat, to serve as a visual reminder that the child is in the back seat
  • lock the vehicle’s doors and trunk, even when the vehicle is at home and parked in the driveway or in the garage, and keep the keys out of the reach of children (and ask guests to do the same)
  • if a child goes missing, immediately check the passenger compartments and trunks of all vehicles in the area, even if they are locked (children sometimes lock vehicle doors from the inside and cannot unlock them)

Why did Arizona enact a “Hot Car Law”?

For decades, Good Samaritans who saw young children or dogs (or other such pets) left unattended in cars risked being sued by the vehicle’s owner for any damage they caused in removing the child or pet from the car. If the owner of a car left a child in that car and a passerby saw this then rescued the child by breaking a window, the car’s owner could sue the Good Samaritan for the cost of repairing or replacing the window.

Given the fact that the possibility of facing a lawsuit could serve to discourage a person from attempting to rescue a child or a pet from a locked hot car, the lack of any legal protections for Good Samaritans in such situations was viewed as putting young children and pets at additional risk. So in 2017 Arizona amended the state law that regulates personal lawsuits by enacting House Bill (HB) 2494. HB 2494 was adopted into Arizona law at A.R.S. (Arizona Revised Statutes) § 12-558.02. The new law gives protections to Good Samaritans in such situations so long as certain conditions are met.

What does Arizona’s “Hot Car Law” say?

What A.R.S. § 12-558.02 says is that a person who uses reasonable force to enter a locked and unattended motor vehicle to remove either (a) a minor child or (b) a confined domestic animal (a dog, a cat, or any other animal that is domesticated and kept as a household pet) will not be held liable for damages in a civil court case brought against that person if each of the following apply:

      (1) the person has a good faith belief that the minor child or domestic animal is in imminent danger of suffering physical injury or death unless the minor child or domestic animal is removed from the vehicle

      (2) the person determines that the motor vehicle is locked or there is no other reasonable means by which the person can remove the minor child or domestic animal from the vehicle

      (3) before entering the motor vehicle, the person notifies a peace officer, emergency medical service provider, or first responder, or an animal control enforcement agency or deputy, if appropriate, of the fact that a minor child or domestic animal is inside a locked and unattended vehicle

      (4) the person uses no more force than necessary under the circumstances to enter the vehicle and remove the minor child or domestic animal from the vehicle AND

      (5) the person remains with the minor child or domestic animal until the person who is notified (as required above) arrives

Under A.R.S. 12-558.02, any person whose action meets all of these requirements will be immune from civil liability for damages caused by that action. In other words, if the owner of a vehicle leaves a child or a pet in that vehicle and a Good Samaritan sees this then rescues the child or pet by breaking a window, the vehicle’s owner will be barred from suing the Good Samaritan for the cost of repairing or replacing the window – so long as the Good Samaritan (1) genuinely and reasonably believed that the child or pet was in immediate danger of either suffering physical injury or dying; (2) determined that the vehicle was locked; (3) called 9-1-1 or notified an appropriate first responder agency before entering the vehicle; (4) used the minimal level of force required to enter the vehicle in order to remove the child or pet; and (5) remained with the child or pet until the notified first responder arrived. Any person whose action fails to meet even just one of these five requirements and who commits any unnecessary or malicious damage to the vehicle will not be immune to a lawsuit (and therefore still may be sued for damages in a civil court case).

Sources and further reading

Arizona Humane Society – “Don’t Leave Pets or Kids in Hot Cars”: http://www.azhumane.org/events/dont-leave-pets-kids-hot-cars/

Animal Legal Defense Fund – “An Avoidable Tragedy: Dogs in Hot Cars”: https://aldf.org/project/an-avoidable-tragedy-dogs-in-hot-cars/

Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) § 12-558.02: https://www.azleg.gov/ars/12/00558-02.htm

Arizona State University – “Study: Hot cars can hit deadly temperatures in as little as one hour”: https://asunow.asu.edu/20180516-discoveries-asu-study-hot-cars-can-hit-deadly-temperatures-within-one-hour

KidsandCars.org – “How Kids Get Hurt: Heatstroke”: https://www.kidsandcars.org/how-kids-get-hurt/heat-stroke/

KidsandCars.org – “Safety Tips: Look Before You Lock”: https://www.kidsandcars.org/2017/07/31/heat-stroke-death-a-risk-to-children-in-hot-cars/

Mayo Clinic – “Heatstroke”: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heat-stroke/symptoms-causes/syc-20353581

Safe Kids AZ – “Vehicular Heatstroke”: http://safekidsaz.org/vehicular-heatstroke/

Scripps Institution of Oceanography – “Hot Cars Can Hit Life-Threatening Levels in Approximately One Hour”: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/hot-cars-can-hit-life-threatening-levels-approximately-one-hour

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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