New FF-supported Calif. law protects civilians who save children from hot cars

California Professional Firefighters promoted the law, which prevents good Samaritans from being sued or prosecuted for property damage when they break into a car to rescue an endangered child


Tony Bizjak
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Do you dare smash a car window on a hot day to save a child? California says go ahead, we've got your back legally speaking.

At least to a point.

A new state law in effect today provides more legal protection for passersby who break into a locked vehicle to save an endangered child. Until now, people who smashed car windows to save a child could be sued for property damage or potentially held criminally responsible.

Southern California Assemblyman Ed Chau, D- Monterey Park, an attorney who wrote the law, said he wants California to pay more attention to the tragic potential when children are accidentally or purposely left in hot cars, an issue that has been highlighted in recent years in numerous reports.

That includes making it safer for passersby to take action.

"The purpose is to encourage good Samaritans to do the right thing," he said. "Every single year (nationally) there is an average of 40 children who die from heatstroke after they were left in an unattended vehicle.

"In California, for 2018 and 2019, there were six children who died after being left in a hot car. That's six children too many. Those are innocent and precious lives that could have been saved."

Young children are more susceptible to heatstroke, he said.

Chau says he pushed the law after reading about tragedies that occurred during otherwise normal days when distracted parents and caretakers forgot they had a child in the car. In one case, Chau said, a person forgot to drop the child off at daycare and instead drove to work, leaving the child in the car.

Chau said he is not aware of a California case where someone has been held civilly liable for saving a child, but a legislative review of the bill noted an instance of a good Samaritan who was sued for his actions of pulling an injured person out of a car after a crash, fearing the person would be burned otherwise.

The Chau bill was supported by state firefighters, who are typically first on the scene when a child is trapped in a hot car.

"When there is so little time to prevent the injury or death of a young child, individuals who are on the scene and able to respond immediately should not be punished for property damage caused to the vehicle during the rescue," the California Professional Firefighters wrote in support of the bill. "California's firefighters are often the first on the scene when these horrific accidents occur, and know firsthand the devastation that comes with these tragic incidents."

The new law comes with restrictions to prevent people from over-reacting and causing unnecessary damage or harm.

The new law "grants criminal and civil immunity to any person who rescues a child from a vehicle, so long as the rescuer reasonably believes that the child is in danger, does no more damage to the vehicle than is necessary, contacts law enforcement or emergency personnel (first), and waits with the child until police officers or emergency personnel arrive on the scene."

The law, which focuses on children 6 years or younger, lays out this scenario:

"A person who removes a child from a vehicle ... is not criminally liable for actions taken reasonably and in good faith if the person does all of the following:

"Determines the vehicle is locked or there is otherwise no reasonable manner for the child to be removed from the vehicle.

"Has a good faith belief that forcible entry into the vehicle is necessary because the child is in imminent danger of suffering harm if it is not immediately removed from the vehicle, and, based upon the circumstances known to the person at the time, the belief is a reasonable one.

"Has contacted a local law enforcement agency, the fire department, or the '911' emergency service prior to forcibly entering the vehicle.

"Remains with the child in a safe location, out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle, until a peace officer or another emergency responder arrives.

"Used no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the child from the vehicle than was necessary under the circumstances.

"Immediately turns the child over to a representative from law enforcement or another emergency responder who responds to the scene."

Legislative officials warned that the law doesn't necessarily provide protection if the person causes physical harm to the child.

"It is important to note the limited nature of the immunity provided by this bill," an Assembly bill analyst points out. "First, the bill only provides immunity for damage or trespass to property; it would not provide immunity if the rescuer caused injury to the child.

"Second, the immunity only applies where the rescuer acted upon 'reasonable' belief that the child was in danger."

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(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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