HOA’s Settlement with Trayvon Martin Family Illustrates Liability Issues Involving Neighborhood Watch Programs

Last year I participated in a discussion with an Associated Press reporter and wrote about a central Florida community association’s apparent endorsement of George Zimmerman as its neighborhood watch captain and his involvement in a tragic incident that took the life of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I addressed the possibility that the victim’s family may file a wrongful death civil suit against the association. Last month, news broke about the purported settlement reached between the parents of the victim and the association for an undisclosed amount reported by several news outlets to be in excess of $1 million.

During the course of the litigation and a mediation attempt prior to the settlement, it was reported that under the heading “Neighborhood Watch,” the HOA’s newsletter recommended that residents first call police and then “please contact our Captain, George Zimmerman . . . so he can be aware and help address the issue with other residents.” This apparent endorsement of Zimmerman, who claimed to have been acting in the above-described capacity when the teenage victim lost his life, may have been considered by the association’s board and counsel to expose the association to liability in the lawsuit.

watch program sign.jpgThe Community Associations Institute (CAI) offers an excellent article on neighborhood watch program considerations for HOAs that is available by clicking here. The article discusses how associations should work with their local police department to implement these programs, create a process for recruiting responsible volunteers who will follow all of the written procedures for the security measures, and continuously reinforce these procedures and the do-not-engage rules with the volunteers.

This article from the CAI is recommended for all community association board members and managers who are considering implementing or have already implemented a watch program in their community. As I wrote in my article last year, there are many reasons why associations should avoid formally creating these watch groups and leave it up to the individual owners to band together to develop their own efforts outside of the auspices of the association. However, for associations that cannot or will not distance themselves from the formation of the watch groups, they should follow the guidelines offered by CAI and consult with qualified legal counsel in order to limit their potential liability.