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What happens when an association's neighborhood watch goes rogue?

News headlines for the past week have brought to mind a disturbing part of recent Florida history. Apparently, former Sanford citizen and neighborhood watch commander George Zimmerman is planning on fighting in an upcoming celebrity boxing match, supposedly to raise money in order to live. Now, we all know that Zimmerman was found not guilty in his criminal trial, but the fact that he took the law into his own hands on that dark and stormy night is not in dispute. Unfortunately, the overzealous actions of neighborhood security personnel are not limited to our Central Florida neighbors.

Will George Zimmerman’s community association bear financial liability for the death of Trayvon Martin?
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

On September 25, 2013, The Palm Beach Post (the “Post”) reported that the Northlake Villa Condominium was ordered to pay $1.5 million dollars to the victim of a shooting where the assailant, Jack Abrams, was the associations “deputized” security guard and who wasn’t even an owner, but was the live-in boyfriend of a board member. Because Abrams had been appointed by the association’s board to enforce the condominium’s rules and regulations, a Palm Beach County jury last week found that the association was liable for Abrams’s inexplicable fit of anger.

The Post reported that, in 2010, Abrams “lost it” when a woman left the condominium’s laundry room door open. Abrams vented his displeasure loudly. The woman’s boyfriend, wondering what the commotion was, ventured into the hallway where Abrams proceeded to shoot him three times leading to, as reported, 24 blood transfusions, 12 surgeries, and more to come. During the trial, the Post reported that the following facts were presented:

• When the board appointed Abrams, no background checks were done.

• Abrams received an “other than honorable discharge” in 2000 from the U.S. Marines Corps for drug use and other character flaws.

• A psychiatrist and psychologist who examined Abrams, as part of the criminal case, agreed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia.

• When North Palm Beach police searched his apartment, they discovered an arsenal of weapons including five guns, seven combat knives, and 1,400 rounds of ammunition.

• Others testified about Abrams’s increasingly erratic behavior. It was reported that he accosted people in the parking lot if they didn’t park their cars between the lines.

• The day before he shot the victim, he told one resident: “I’m getting so sick and tired of this laundry room. I’m going to kill someone over it.”

Unfortunately, that is exactly what he did. Abrams shot the owner’s boyfriend “due to a mixture of rage and intoxication”. While a security expert testified during trial that such “poor decision-making by neighborhood and condo associations is becoming increasingly common”, it was not poor decision making that led to the judgment against the condominium. Rather, it was that the board failed to act. By failing to act, the board conducted itself with reckless abandon.

In his column Rembaum's Association Roundup, attorney Jeff Rembaum of Kaye Bender Rembaum analyzed the poor judgement and regrettable circumstances that took place during the case.

"The “standard” by which association board members should conduct themselves is referred to as “reasonable business judgment”. In plain English, this does not mean a board must always be right in their decision making," stated Rembaum. "Rather, they must act reasonably under the circumstances. So, when a board defies the requirements of its own governing documents by deputizing a non-owner as a defacto committee chair of security, turns a blind eye to reports of its residents as to Abrams’s erratic behavior, and fails to conduct even a simple background check before appointing individuals to the neighborhood watch committee, it’s not likely anyone would believe the board acted reasonably. Rather, the board acted with a reckless and wonton abandon endangering the life of every owner, tenant, and guest."

The Northlake Villa Condominium learned the hard way that there is such a line. Will George Zimmerman’s community association bear financial liability for the death of Trayvon Martin? Did his association’s board act with reckless abandon and fail to fulfill its duty by exercise of its reasonable business judgment?

"Interestingly, the State of Georgia’s appellate courts have held that a condominium association, being a purely legislative created form of ownership (similar to Florida’s condominium regime) does not owe a duty to provide security in the common areas where it previously disclaimed such responsibility in its declaration of condominium. Likely, this would be true in Florida, too," Rembaum continued. "However, when a board fails to act when it should have, there are very real consequences. The Abrams case teaches us that where an association creates a neighborhood watch committee, the board should take “reasonable”(there is that word again) measures during the appointment process, such as running background checks and ensuring those appointed to office meet any requirements set out in the governing documents."

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