Operation: Hot Dog Rescue

It’s getting hot outside, and I couldn’t be more ready. I’m looking forward to spending countless hours at the pool with my daughter. We’ll sip cold drinks and bask in the sunshine as much as possible. Summer is the season for sandals, swimming parties and ice cream trucks, and we absolutely love it.

Other than the occasional sunburn, there’s only one thing I hate about our hottest months—seeing a dog trapped inside a car. I swear this happens at least once a year: As I’m walking through a sweltering parking lot, I come across some poor pup that’s panting for its life inside a sealed automobile. Sometimes the owner has been generous enough to crack a window, but not always. I’ve had relatively good luck in these situations—most store managers have been ready and willing to help me locate the vehicle’s owner.

But what if you can’t find the person responsible for trapping his or her pet inside a four-door easy-bake oven? Can you do anything to alleviate the animal’s suffering? On this point, I have good news. While the Hoosier State isn’t always on the right side of history (see, for example, the Indiana Klan in the 1920s or our current legislative position on inactive metabolites), a new law demonstrates that when it comes to neglected pets, empathy can outweigh the sanctity of personal property rights.

If you see an animal locked in an enclosed car, you’re allowed to break into that vehicle to set the animal free. You can’t do this willy-nilly, though. If you want to avoid legal consequences for your rescue operation, there are five things you need to remember: 1) you must reasonably believe that the animal in the vehicle is in imminent danger of suffering serious bodily harm if it remains there (it’s easier to make this argument in mid-July than on a breezy fall afternoon); 2) you must confirm that the car is actually locked (try the handle before breaking a window); 3) you must call 9-1-1, the police, or animal control before breaking into the vehicle (screenshot that call for insurance purposes); 4) you must use the least amount of force necessary (don’t break all of the windows when one will suffice); and 5) you must stay with the animal until the authorities arrive (you can’t just stick a handwritten explanation under the windshield wipers).

If you can satisfy each of these conditions, you’ll be excused from any criminal or civil liability for your intervention. This sounds like a good deal, but the law has its problems. The first issue is that it only applies to domestic pets, not livestock. In other words, you need to think twice before you liberate a trailer full of overheated goats. The other issue is that you—the hero, the savior of helpless creatures—should expect to get a bill from the car’s owner for half the cost of repairs. This statutory liability is written into the law itself, and while it isn’t ideal, it’s certainly preferable to the open-ended civil variety.  

If you’ve freed a pet from a hot car, and the ungrateful owner is trying to get you to foot half of the repair bill, give your old friend Marc Lopez a call at 317-632-3642. At my law firm, everyone loves pets (and so do most judges and jurors).