Trayvon Martin’s Death Raises Concerns for Community Associations Nationwide
The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. has attracted a flood of national attention due to the highly charged legal, political and cultural issues involved. One particular issue that has surfaced is whether the homeowners’ association for Zimmerman’s neighborhood has any civil liability in connection with the shooting. This is a novel question, and community associations everywhere should pay close attention to this case.
Over the past few weeks, media outlets have reported that the Martin family intends to sue Zimmerman’s homeowners’ association for damages arising from the killing. The association is a natural target for a civil suit, due to the fact that it probably has liquid assets and an insurance policy from which the Martins can seek recovery.
The facts of the case have not yet been fully established or clarified, but the media reports that Zimmerman was purportedly a leader of a “neighborhood watch” group organized by the homeowners’ association, and that newsletters published by the association allegedly identified him as the “captain” of the watch group. A cursory review of these allegations suggests that Zimmerman’s role in the watch group was at some level known and approved by the association.
While the law in this specific area is not yet well developed, the association could potentially face civil liability for Martin’s death if it took actions – or failed to take actions – that essentially resulted in the association’s sanctioning of Zimmerman’s activities as a member of the neighborhood watch group. Some of the factors to be considered in the analysis will probably include the level of control the association had over the group; the extent to which the association exercised or failed to exercise such control; whether the association’s board had knowledge – or should have had knowledge – that members of the group carried weapons; and whether the association had any duties related to the establishment and operation of the group, such as the duty to perform background checks on watch group members or the duty to prohibit members from using deadly force. Other factors will be involved as well, such as whether the association’s insurance policy provides coverage for the liability or coverage for the defense of the case. The ultimate analysis will be complex.
Community associations of all sizes should pay close attention to this case because it illustrates yet another area of potential liability for associations. Regardless of whether the association prevails on the issue of liability for Martin’s death, the association will undoubtedly incur substantial legal fees and expenses defending the family’s claims. The burden for these fees and expenses, which could possibly be hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be borne by the homeowners through a dramatic increase in their assessments. Accordingly, if a community association intends to form any sort of “neighborhood watch” group, it should consult a competent attorney to discuss the issues involved and to carefully develop a prudent course of action that minimizes the association’s liability.
This blog post is not, and should not be considered, legal advice, and is for general informational purposes only. Always consult an attorney for legal advice regarding specific situations.