Saturday, March 31, 2012

HOA could be sued in Trayvon Martin civil suit |

HOA could be sued in Trayvon Martin civil suit |

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The residents who live in the gated community where Trayvon Martin was killed could soon find themselves in a legal battle.
Several attorneys say if Martin's parents file a civil suit, the homeowners association for the Retreat at Twin Lakes could be named in the case, meaning residents of the community could end up paying big money for the 17-year-old's death.
Fred Pilot sent some links along on this issue. As you can imagine, I've been thinking about this possibility since I first heard that the case involved some sort of alleged neighborhood watch program in a gated community.   It seems likely that such a lawsuit will happen unless Zimmerman is prosecuted and acquitted.  If so, I don't know how this will play out because the facts aren't clear yet., and I don't want to prejudge it.  The critical issue is the nature of the relationship between Zimmerman and the HOA.  Another story says this:

A civil lawsuit in the Martin case, legal experts said, would be predicated on establishing a relationship between Zimmerman and the Retreat at Twin Lake association, as well as establishing a relationship between Twin Lakes homeowners and a crime watch group that Zimmerman led. The homeowners association acknowledged Zimmerman and the neighborhood crime watch in a February newsletter, according to the Associated Press. The newsletter encouraged residents to contact Zimmerman in case of an incident, it said. "If you've been the victim of a crime within the community, after calling the police, please contact our captain, George Zimmerman ... so we can be aware and help address the issue with other residents," the newsletter said.

That suggests a connection between Zimmerman and the HOA.  There are several questions that have been raised or that come to mind:
  • What documentation, if any, exists that confirms or defines the nature of this "captain" role that Zimmerman was playing?
  • Did the HOA know that Zimmerman was armed when we was out and about acting as "captain"?
  • What training, if any, did Zimmerman have to do this? And what steps did the HOA take to make sure that their "captain" was trained properly?
  • Neighborhood Watch programs are registered with the National Sheriff's Association.  This one wasn't. Why was this HOA operating an unregistered program? . Here's what they have to say about this:  "The alleged action of a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman” last month in Sanford, FL significantly contradicts the principles of the Neighborhood Watch Program,” stated NSA Executive Director Aaron D. Kennard, Sheriff (ret.). “NSA has no information indicating the community where the incident occurred has ever even registered with the NSA Neighborhood Watch program.” 
  • Had there been any complaints brought to the HOA about Zimmerman's behavior in this role? What did they know?
  • What should they have known?  What level of supervision or oversight did the HOA have over Zimmerman, and was it consistent with the standard of care and practice that prevails in this industry.
  • The industry, by the way, has already taken steps in the wake of this tragedy to advise associations that they should avoid any such responsibilities.  Here's what CAI has to say, in a press release: "I would not advise board members to inject themselves into the role of telling members how to set up a neighborhood watch. The board cannot be the eyes and ears that the owners or neighbors can be," says Beth A. Grimm, a Pleasant Hill, Calif., attorney who is a member of CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL).
And that leads to another question.  If it turns out that the HOA is civilly liable in this case, who would pay the judgment?  If the HOA has a liability insurance policy, which I assume they do, undoubtedly they will turn to that carrier for a defense and indemnification up to the policy limits, which is usually $1 million.  But does that policy cover the actions of volunteers, or just directors and officers of the association?  As association attorney Donna Berger says, "The vast majority of homeowner associations do not have insurance policies that cover the acts of their volunteers, according to Berger. If that is the case with Retreat at Twin Lakes, the residents could be responsible for satisfying any judgment against the association, said Berger, the community associations lawyer not involved in the case."

 That would leave the association potentially facing an uninsured judgment that could involve a great deal of money.  Who would pay that judgment?  Some readers of this blog know that I have been writing about this for some time.  The answer is, "the unit owners." This situation has come up several times in California in the Le Parc case, and in the Oak Park Calaveras saga. I talk about these cases in my latest book, Beyond Privatopia

By the way--try and find that responsibility in your CC&Rs. We constantly hear from the industry and the courts that you are stuck with the terms of the governing documents because you should have read and understood them. Fine. But here is an obligation that nobody knows about:  responsibility for uninsured debts and judgments of the association.

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