Martin's Parents Plan To Sue Homeowners Group

The attorney for Trayvon Martin's parents has already promised to file a civil lawsuit against the homeowner's association where the unarmed teenager was killed.

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In Florida, questions continue to swirl about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman gun down the teen in February. Zimmerman hasn't been charged because he claimed self-defense. One question that hasn't been answered: Is the homeowners association liable for the death.

Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are nearly 200 townhomes at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the community in Sanford where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. It's possible the owners of those townhomes may also be held liable in Trayvon Martin's shooting. Lawyers for the Martin family say they plan a civil lawsuit naming both Martin and the homeowners association. Attorney Ken Direktor says that's not unexpected.

KEN DIREKTOR: The associations always make a good target in lawsuits because they carry substantial liability insurance.

ALLEN: In community newsletters, George Zimmerman was identified as the Neighborhood Watch captain, and residents were encouraged to contact him if they were victimized by crime. He was a volunteer, but attorney Donna DiMaggio Berger says that doesn't protect the homeowners association from liability.

She says some key issues in a lawsuit would be: Did the homeowners association help set up the neighborhood watch program, and how much diligence did it show in training and overseeing the volunteers.

DONNA DIMAGGIO BERGER: I have been told in this case is that they did reach out to the local sheriff's office to set up that neighborhood watch. And if that's the case, that's going to go a long way towards creating a safety net for that association.

ALLEN: Michael Rosenberg heads the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations, a group that represents hundreds of community associations in the Miami area. Because most homeowners associations carry substantial insurance, he doubts the Trayvon Martin shooting will have much impact on how they do business.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: It may make them want to go check and make sure they're really covered well. But I'll bet if you look around the country, you'd find, sadly, something everyday that happens somewhere at one of these associations.

ALLEN: Long before the Trayvon Martin shooting, condo and homeowner associations have been concerned about issues of liability related to work performed by volunteers or unlicensed vendors.

Ken Direktor advises homeowners associations at the Florida law firm, Becker and Poliakoff. He says, with the struggling economy, many homeowner associations have cut costs by using volunteers for everything from gardening to security.

DIREKTOR: I don't know what the motivating factors might be. If you start to use people who have less training, who may not have the requisite licensure, who may not have the insurance necessary to protect the association's interests, you create a heightened level of risk for the community.

ALLEN: Donna Berger worries that heightened awareness of the risk could discourage the use of volunteers. That would be a shame, she says, because in her experience, volunteers help pull a community together.

BERGER: And it's a great thing. An association shouldn't shy away from it. They should just take the proper steps to make sure that they've got the right volunteers performing the right activity, they've done due diligence and they have insurance to cover it.

ALLEN: Under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, George Zimmerman's attorney is claiming his client is immune both from criminal prosecution and from civil lawsuits. That same protection may not apply to those in Sanford who own homes in the Retreat at Twin Lakes.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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