In the aftermath of the tragic shooting of Travon Martin, many associations have raised questions regarding the operations of their neighborhood watch programs to make sure they do not face the potential liability and exposure that George Zimmerman's community is currently facing. Almost everyone now knows the name of Travon Martin and the circumstances surrounding the teenager's death on February 26th, when he was shot and killed by a volunteer captain of a neighborhood watch program in a gated Orlando community. The 28-year-old volunteer, George Zimmerman, had apparently wanted to be a police officer at one time, but that career never became reality. While the coverage on this case has been constant, one issue that is now being discussed more and more is the relationship between Mr. Zimmerman's homeowners association and the neighborhood watch program that was operating within it.
Neighborhood watch programs are a valuable tool in reducing crimes in communities, and creating effective safety and well-being that enhance a community's appeal to its residents and the outside. However, as the Travon Martin matter shows, special care needs to be exercised when establishing a volunteer security detail such as is involved in this case, in order to protect an association from potential liability.
In order to establish the type of due diligence to protect the association from liability, In the coming weeks and months, more attention might turn to the Central Florida Homeowners Association, especially in any civil action that the Martin family may bring. Many communities have volunteers who perform certain functions including grounds, beautification and planning social events. However, the kind of volunteer security detail involved in this case creates all sorts of concerns and potential for liability. In the Martin case, some questions for the Board might be:
- Did the Board request the creation of this Neighborhood Watch?
- Did the Board appoint the volunteers?
- Was the Board kept apprised of the Neighborhood Watch's activities?
- Did the Board know that Zimmerman and perhaps other members of the Neighborhood Watch were patrolling the community armed?
- Did the Board screen any of the volunteers, including Zimmerman, to determine that they were mentally and physically fit to serve this function?
There were incidents in Zimmerman's background that were troubling, including battery against an officer and resisting arrest. His record was expunged at some point which allowed him to carry a weapon. This tragedy is a cautionary tale for other associations out there. Since many volunteers are not directors, officers or employees of the association, the association may have no insurance coverage whatsoever for wrongful acts in the absence of a specific policy rider. While the Martin case deals with life and death, there are other cases where community volunteers expose an association to discrimination and harassment claims.
If your community has volunteers, you need to know what those people are doing, and you need to speak to your insurance agent to ensure that there is coverage in place should something go horribly wrong.