Legislation aimed at curbing the number of hot-car deaths in Florida got unanimous favor from a House committee on Tuesday.
The bill — sponsored by House Republican Leader Dana Young, of Tampa, and Rep. Jared Evan Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs — would allow people to break in to locked vehicles in order to free a senior citizen, person with disabilities, child or pet if there is a “good faith belief” that person or animal is “in imminent danger of suffering harm.”
Under House Bill 131, the person breaking in to the vehicle could not be sued for the damage if they call 911 beforehand and remain until emergency services arrive. They also can’t use any more force than is necessary to rescue the person or pet inside.
Young said she’s not aware of any instances where someone has been sued for rescuing a pet or person from a locked car. She said she hopes the proposal brings awareness and empowers bystanders to help save lives.
“We don’t ever want to be in a situation where someone was thinking about doing the rescue and paused, worrying about the liability, and in those moments … something tragic happens,” Moskowitz said.
The bill is primarily in response to people and pets who have died from heatstroke after being left in hot cars under Florida’s blazing summer sun. In the past five years alone, 16 children and 17 elderly residents have died in Florida after being left in hot vehicles, Young said.
But, she added, it also could apply to other situations where someone is locked inside and in need of help.
Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, suggested broadening the bill to include any adult who is temporarily disabled because of a medical emergency or drug overdose. Young said she expects those changes to be added as the bill moves through the committee process. It next goes to the Judiciary Committee.
As it stands, though, Young said the legislation goes further than any other in the nation by including not just children, but also pets, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
“We have an opportunity here to be cutting edge around the country and, once again, do something to protect the vulnerable,” Young said. “Just knowing they will be shielded from liability if they act reasonably, hopefully that will save a life.”
A House staff analysis noted a hole in the proposal: The immunity granted by the bill doesn’t protect against criminal prosecution, should the vehicle’s owner press charges against the rescuer.
Young told the committee she didn’t feel it necessary to include that, because “it’s unlikely that a prosecutor would choose to press charges in a situation where someone was trying to offer help.”
A similar bill has been filed in the Senate by Fort Myers Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto, but it has not been scheduled for any hearings yet.