Homeowners Association Could Be Liable in Trayvon Martin’s Death

One big question at stake in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin is whether Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense laws will shield Zimmerman from conviction, as well as subsequent civil action by Martin’s family. However, regardless of Zimmerman’s fate, the homeowners association in the gated community where Martin was killed could be liable for the teenager’s death.

  • Zimmerman was the official watch captain for the neighborhood
  • Questions abound about training and guidelines put forth by association
  • Homeowners associations liable for incidents in their communities

 

Captain of the Guard

When George Zimmerman prowled through the neighborhood looking for suspicious people in The Retreat at Twin Lakes in central Florida, he wasn’t acting totally out of the blue. Zimmerman was officially identified as the captain of the neighborhood watch in a newsletter distributed by the community’s homeowners association. Homeowners with concerns were encouraged to contact Zimmerman “so he can be aware and help address the issue with other residents.”

Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, on February 26 after spotting him walking through the neighborhood and telling police he thought the teenager was “up to no good.” After escaping initial arrest due to Florida’s self-defense law, Zimmerman was charged this week with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty.

The Stand Your Ground law could still get the shooter off the hook, as well as protect him from liability in a wrongful death suit. However, no matter what happens to Zimmerman, the homeowners association could still have to answer, financially speaking, for Martin’s death.

“While a criminal conviction of George Zimmerman may certainly help the plaintiffs in a civil suit against the HOA, the viability of such a suit is not dependent on a criminal conviction,” says Lisa Wilcox, an attorney based in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Even if George Zimmerman is found to be completely shielded from liability, the HOA may still be liable based on its failure to properly train and/or supervise George Zimmerman or some other theory of tort liability.”

 

Exposure to Liability

Lisa Wilcox

The Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners association might be wishing they had picked someone else to be neighborhood watch captain, since Zimmerman’s action could end up costing them a bundle of money, to say nothing of a young man’s life.

“The degree to which the HOA authorized George Zimmerman’s actions will affect the HOA’s exposure to liability and may also play a role in the theory of liability presented by the plaintiffs in this case,” Wilcox says. “The HOA’s liability based on its designation of George Zimmerman as neighborhood watch captain will also depend on the answers to numerous questions.” 

Among the questions that would determine the extent to which the association is exposed to liability:

  • How was Zimmerman appointed? By a vote of the HOA board?
  • What is the HOA’s authority under its governing documents to establish a community watch program in the first place?
  • How detailed were the HOA’s guidelines and policies, if any, for executing the community watch program?
  • Did the HOA have knowledge that Zimmerman owned and carried firearms?
  • Did Zimmerman have a concealed weapons permit?
  • Did Zimmerman violate any other HOA rules relating to carrying a firearm in the neighborhood?

 

Acted in Good Faith

Even if Zimmerman hadn’t been officially designated watch captain, there is a chance the homeowner’s association could still be found liable for Martin’s death. “Speaking in general terms, homeowner’s associations may be exposed to tort liability for incidents that happen in their communities,” Wilcox says. “In fact, in 2004 a Florida appellate court found a homeowners association partially liable for the wrongful death of a resident in her home. The liability is based on whether the HOA acted negligently. It will also depend on what the HOA’s obligations and duties are under the HOA’s Declaration, bylaws, and policies, and whether the HOA fulfilled their duties.”

The attorney also notes that the homeowners association could be liable under Florida’s Volunteer Protection Act, which could actually shield Zimmerman to the extent he was acting as an agent of the HOA. “Under the Act, the HOA potentially could be found liable if it is determined that Zimmerman:  a) acted in good faith and within the scope of his official volunteer duties, b) he acted as an ordinary reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances and c) he did not act with wanton or willful misconduct,” she says.

Liabilities pop up no matter which was you turn– which is why it would be wise for homeowners associations to take prudent steps to revise their policies and personnel before someone gets killed.

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