The people who could end up paying the financial price for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin are, ultimately, the homeowners of the Retreat at Twin Lakes development in Sanford, experts say.
If their crime-watch program captain George Zimmerman gets charged with and convicted of killing Trayvon, the community's homeowner association and property-management company will likely be sued by the victim's family regarding the way the watch program was established and operated, said Donna Berger, a lawyer who specializes in homeowner-association law.
"They may wind up getting sued and getting hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and damages," said Berger, who works with the South Florida law firm Katzman, Garfinkel and Berger. "Who will pay is every member of the association, and they will have to make special assessments. ... It's a cautionary tale for other associations."
Located about six miles west of historic downtown Sanford, the 6-year-old Retreat at Twin Lakes contains about 200 two-story town homes. Don O'Brien, president of the homeowner association's board, would not comment when contacted this week, and other members of the board did not return phone calls.
Leland Management is the community's property manager, but no one from that company returned phone calls from the Orlando Sentinel. The company describes itself as a "proactive management firm with the objective of providing a safe, positive environment for all residents. Leland believes in fostering community spirit and responsible resident behavior."
Zimmerman shot the unarmed teen Feb. 26, sparking controversy and inciting protests across the country.
Zimmerman was the point person for the subdivision's Neighborhood Watch. The September edition of the community's newsletter stated: "To receive Neighborhood Watch updates, safety tips and be noticed [sic] of any suspicious activity within your community, call George Zimmerman," and included his phone number, which has since been disconnected.
It is unclear how much Retreat at Twin Lakes' Neighborhood Watch worked with Sanford police. The department's Crime Prevention Specialist Wendy Dorival did not return calls.
DeBary resident Jan Bergemann, who operates a homeowner-association watchdog group called Cyber Citizens for Justice, said Retreat at Twin Lakes' association should have issued guidelines that warned crime-watch members against arming themselves when doing anything that might be considered the business of the watch program.
"They should have issued proper guidelines that disallowed members from running around with guns," Bergemann said. "If you don't put out guidelines, you are in deep doo-doo if something happens. ... If the Martin family brings a wrongful-death lawsuit, more or less I think the association will be on the hook."
Legal judgments and settlements against an association's board members and directors are usually covered by an errors-and-omissions insurance policy, but the community's crime-watch program would not be covered because it's considered more of a neighborhood committee, Bergemann added.
In the past, associations facing legal damages have tried to file bankruptcy, but judges have not looked favorably on such a strategy, Bergemann said. Also, judges have considered the houses in a community as collateral to cover such damages, he said.
In 2006, the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal held the homeowner association for a South Florida community, Lago Grande, partially responsible in a wrongful-death case; property owners there were assessed about $2,000 each to pay the legal judgment.
Even though the facts of that case differed from those of the Trayvon Martin case, it illustrates how homeowners can be forced to pay for civil judgments imposed on their association.
"This is what I'm always trying to say — being a member of an association is nice when it comes to having a pool and clubhouse, but you buy into all of the association's liabilities, too," Bergemann said.
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