Is there a Liability for Neighborhood Watch groups?

Posted on: February 8th, 2013
There is an interesting discussion that happens (or should happen) among innocently constructed Neighborhood Watch groups and even Home Owners Associations. And it can become quite serious if not addressed. Are you part of one of these organizations? If so, this is for you...

Let's take a look at it in a bit more detail as this probably has application to the majority of you who read our blog. A series of break-ins, car prowls and acts of vandalism has you and the other homeowners concerned.  Your Homeowner's or Condo Association Owner's (let's just use "HOA") establishes a Neighborhood Watch at some point.  The Neighborhood Watch is a volunteer organization with spotty training and no written nor comprehensive rules or guidance.  What they have to go by was prepared by other volunteers - maybe just like you and most likely prepared without attorney involvement to save money...

A Watch Captain, who is most likely a volunteer, while arguably be acting in the scope of his or her "agency" (i.e. under the Board-approved Neighborhood Watch program), gets involved in a confrontation with another person which tragically ends up in shooting the other person, who dies.  Was this an act of murder or self-defense?  There are two explanations, so sides are taken and fingers are pointed.  A criminal trial is pending and civil lawsuits will no doubt be filed even if the accused is judged to be innocent...

I'm sure with all the press out there you can guess which current case generated the discussion.  It has some very similar parallels to what we were discussing.

At a minimum, THE WATCH CAPTAIN WILL PROBABLY BE FINANCIALLY DEVASTATED EVEN IF DEEMED INNOCENT.  THEY ARE STILL SUSCEPTIBLE TO CIVIL LIABILITY FOR NEGLIGENCE OR EVEN AN INTENTIONAL TORT.  Remember the O.J. Simpson case?  His decison changed many lives forever, regardless of it being criminal or civil.

SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT LOSING YOUR HOME AND LIFE'S SAVINGS?  Maybe.  There are some key questions you should be asking yourself. For example, is your HOA incorporated?  If not, you may lack any kind of entity "shield" brought against your collective. Should individual BOARD MEMBERS and the HOA organization worry about liability? Certainly the HOA should and Board Members may be protected if there is a corporation, if state statute provides immunity for not for profit volunteers, and if there was no gross negligence. Would Homeowner's Insurance or something else protect the individual homeowners?  Is there a corporate shield?  Do the Director's and Officers of the HOA have insurance on that role?  Does the HOA have insurance that will cover this intentional act... i.e. using a firerarm in this manner?

Wow. Lots to think about and consider - probably more than most people realize, including the HOA management team and board...But the key is to know what these questions are and ask them BEFORE you need the answers. Being prepared is much more than just having your gun loaded, it's making sure you have the answers to some very relevant and critical questions. I hope if you are attached to any HOA you step up and ask these questions and hopefully have a great outcome if something like this should happen to you.  If you have ever had any experience in this area, we would love to hear your stories...

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