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Homeowner associations vulnerable to lawsuits

Trayvon Martin case highlights legal pitfalls

Your homeowners association, or HOA, could be sued because of its crime watch program. There are steps you can take to protect the HOA and your own pocketbook from a lawsuit.

Regardless of the outcome of criminal charges filed against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., the association where the shooting occurred could be subject to a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits can drain the financial resources of associations and even require special assessments to pay for legal expenses. In this way, homeowners can be held responsible for the actions of their neighbors.

If you live in a community with a homeowners association, legal experts recommend that you review the Neighborhood Watch program rules and check on the association's liability insurance coverage. News reports on the Zimmerman case have said that he was designated by his HOA as a "captain" of the community's neighborhood watch program.

"It is quite unusual to have a resident listed as a security contact," said Allen Warren, an attorney with a Fairfax, Va., law firm. "It's more common to rely on local law enforcement for security. HOAs should never give the impression they are providing security for residents."

Mr. Warren said it is best if a neighborhood watch or crime watch program is coordinated with the local police department and is not a designated association committee.

"When a community wants to set up a volunteer crime watch system, I encourage it, but I highly recommend that they have a community liaison officer from the local police or sheriff's office come in to train the volunteers," said Ellen Hirsch de Haan, a partner and attorney with Becker & Poliakoff in Clearwater, Fla.

Ms. Hirsch de Haan said that written guidelines must be distributed to all volunteers and to the community at large. The rules should prohibit carrying a weapon while on neighborhood watch duty.

"If the volunteer overstepped the guidelines, the HOA is in much better shape legally if the guidelines are in written form," Ms. Hirsch de Haan said.

Every homeowners association should have appropriate liability insurance coverage, experts said.

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