Lawmakers want to end civil liability on child, pet rescues from hot cars

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (left) and Sen. John Kavanagh (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (left) and Sen. John Kavanagh (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- State senators on Wednesday approved an end-run around the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in a bid to encourage people to rescue children and pets.

HB 2494, approved on a 20-7 margin, spells out there is no civil liability when people smash out a window or otherwise force their way into a vehicle if there is a "good faith belief that the minor or confined domestic animal is in imminent danger or suffering physical injury or death unless ... removed from the motor vehicle.'' The measure also outlines procedures that would-be rescuers must follow to get that immunity.

The language is exactly the same as the Senate approved nearly two months ago in SB 1001. But that measure stalled after Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, refused to give the measure a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee which he chairs.

But by tacking the language onto another unrelated measure which already has gained House approval, the now-amended bill goes back to the full House for action. And that bypasses the Judiciary Committee -- and the ability of Farnsworth to unilaterally kill it.

Farnsworth said Wednesday he remains opposed to the legislation.

"This is not because I want kids to die and I want puppies to die,'' he told Capitol Media Services.

The problem, Farnsworth said, is the legislation is badly crafted and overly broad. In fact, he argued, it even could provide cover for thieves.

The idea is being pushed by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. He said Arizona law already provides immunity to police and other first-responders who break into a vehicle to save a child or pet.

But Kavanagh said under the current law someone who finds a child alone locked in a hot car is legally entitled to only call for help and await arrival. A decision by a Good Samaritan to break in, he said, leaves the rescuer liable for the costs of the damages caused.

The measure says there is not civil liability if the person first notifies a first-responder or animal enforcement agency about a pet or child in the vehicle and "does not use more force than necessary under the circumstances'' to enter the vehicle. The legislation also said the rescuer must remain with the vehicle until emergency personnel respond.

Farnsworth said the measure is flawed.

"It says 'minor,' '' he said. "Does that mean if you have a 17-year-old in the back seat that could easily unlock the door and get out?''

And then there's the question of criminals.

As Farnsworth said he sees it, someone who wants to break into a vehicle can call 9-1-1, smash out the window and escape with the goods long before anyone arrives.

"And if there's not, you stick around and say, 'I thought there was a child in here' and you have immunity,'' he said.

"That is so ridiculous,'' Kavanagh said.

"First of all, the average thief won't even know this law exists,'' he said. Anyway, Kavanagh said, anyone who breaks a window is bound to attract attention, particularly since the defense of rescuing a child or a pet from a hot car only works during the day.

"This defense only works for the 30 seconds prior to they're grabbing the radio (or) whatever they broke in to steal,'' he said. "Once somebody sees them standing there with a ripped-out radio in their hands it's going to be hard to say, 'Oh, I thought there was a kid under that blanket so I decided instead to rescue this purse.' ''

Kavanagh has one other thing going for him: The apparent blessing of Gov. Doug Ducey.

In his State of the State speech in January, the governor effectively endorsed Kavanagh's bill which had been filed about a month before.

"All it takes is a Good Samaritan to save a life,'' Ducey said in his speech to lawmakers.

"The last thing we want is any Arizonan worried about breaking into that car to save a life,'' the governor continued. "Send me a bill protecting the Good Samaritans who save the lives of children and pets and I'll sign it.''

On Twitter: @azcapmedia


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