Good Samaritan Laws: Unintended Consequences Require a Balanced Approach

2019-08-08 | AKC Government Relations Department

More people than ever before are including their dogs in vacation travels and everyday activities. By and large, this is a great thing, and most owners know that leaving a dog in a car, even with ventilation, can create a risky situation for the dog. But recent proposals that seek to remedy dangerous situations may also create serious unresolved legal issues and unintended consequences.    

When someone perceives a dog in distress, the natural inclination is to want to “do something”.  In response to calls for legislative action to better prevent these situations, state and local governments are increasingly turning to update “Good Samaritan Laws” to allow anyone who deems a dog to be in danger to remove it from a vehicle.  In many of these bills already proposed, the person removing the dog is protected from any liability for loss or damages. 

On the surface, this seems like a great solution, but the potential for unintended consequences is great– particularly if someone breaks into a vehicle and the dog wasn’t actually in distress. 

Of course, no one wants to see a dog in a situation where they could suffer.  However, allowing any individual – especially one who has little training or experience with dogs – to break into a vehicle and remove a dog can lead to a variety of situations that could harm the dog, the person breaking into the car, or another person. Regardless of their admirable intent, proposals should not fail to address these situations.

Consider the following hypothetical:  A person has spent part of an afternoon with their dog enjoying the local park, but on the way home, must quickly run into the grocery store.  It’s a nice day, but to be extra careful, the owner leaves cracks in the windows to make sure their dog can get fresh air.  While the owner is in the grocery store, the dog paces in the back seat, is panting, and sticks its nose out the window.  Another shopper, returning their shopping cart, sees the dog and panics, believing that the dog may be in distress, and decides to break the window.  What would your dog do if a stranger broke into your car while the dog was in it?  Here are some possibilities:

  • A dog could bite someone or run away (or both).  Many dogs might get scared and react.  In self-defense, it may bite or otherwise hurt the stranger, or as soon as the door is open it may run off in a panic. 

    If the rescuer is harmed, they may no longer worry about making sure the dog is in a safe location until the owner returns or law enforcement arrives.  Do they just allow it to run away and hope that animal control or another Good Samaritan eventually finds the dog?  At that point, who would be responsible for the dog’s safety?  And what if this all happens near a busy road? 

  • To offer true protection, proposals should not focus only on permitting the removal of a dog from a vehicle.  It should mandate that rescuers provide for the dog’s safety and welfare until it is in a safe location.  If the person who removes the dog cannot stay with the dog and vehicle until the owner returns, they should leave information so the owner knows where their dog is and how to get it back.
     
  • The dog may need medical attention.   In many proposed measures, a person is permitted to enter a vehicle if they believe the animal is in imminent danger.  If a dog is in a hot car and the proper steps for protection have not been taken, the dog’s health can rapidly deteriorate.  It’s also possible the dog may get injured when the rescuer breaks into the car.  Should the person breaking into the car be required to seek immediate veterinary care? Many proposals have failed to address this issue. 
     
  • The dog could be stolen.  The unfortunate reality is not everyone who breaks into a car may be a Good Samaritan.  Pet theft is real, and there are tragic stories throughout the country of dogs being stolen.  Allowing unknown individuals to remove dogs from cars could provide another way for those who engage in this terrible practice to steal dogs before proper authorities arrive. 

Furthermore, unanswered questions of liability arise.  When individuals who are not trained law enforcement or animal control officers determine the status of a dog and break into a vehicle, who is responsible for medical bills if the person is bitten or scratched and medical attention is required?  What if a third party is injured by a dog removed from a vehicle?  Under the majority of Good Samaritan bills, the person removing the dog is exempt from all liability. 

And what if the owner did take proper steps and the dog was not in danger, and now their dog is hurt or has run away?  What if they sustain significant damage to their vehicle?  Many proposals have also failed to consider these possibilities.

In the case of good Samaritan/dogs in cars bills, the American Kennel Club (AKC) urges a balanced approach that protects both dogs and responsible owners. Best practices include providing recourse for owners to protect them from harm in situations in which they exercised appropriate care and caution. Likewise, requiring immediate veterinary care for a dog upon removal from a car protects both dogs and owners. 

AKC encourages all who take dogs with them in their travels to consider their comfort and health needs.  If there is any question of a dog’s comfort or safety, do not leave it in a car.  Taking simple steps to ensure your dog’s safety can avoid unintended consequences and the need for your dog to be rescued.  For example, if conditions are safe, it is a worthwhile practice for owners who must leave dogs temporarily unattended in a vehicle to post a note detailing the date, time left and expected return and a contact number in a visible location on or in the car.   All who own dogs have a responsibility to ensure their dog’s safety and protection.   Laws, however, should offer an appropriately balanced approach that protects dogs and responsible owners.   

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