Homeowner association possible target for Trayvon Martin suit

A security gate is seen March 28, 2012 at the entrance to The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman while Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch patrol. Mario Tama/Getty Images

(AP) SANFORD, Fla. - If Trayvon Martin's family sues over his death, they might not target George Zimmerman but instead the homeowners association of the neighborhood where the shooting happened and Zimmerman lived.

That's because if Zimmerman's claim that he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense is upheld by prosecutors, a judge or a jury, Florida's so-called stand your ground law would protect him from a lawsuit.

But his clearance or acquittal wouldn't stop Martin's parents from suing The Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners association — and its insurance policies and assets would make it a much more lucrative target than Zimmerman, even if he is eventually convicted of a crime.

Plus, lawyers say, Exhibit A would be a newsletter sent by the association to residents in February, the same month as the shooting. It said Zimmerman was the go-to person for residents who had been the victims of a crime.

PAULA BUSTAMANTE/AFP/Getty Images
Under the heading "Neighborhood Watch," the newsletter's message recommended that residents first call police and then "please contact our Captain, George Zimmerman ... so he can be aware and help address the issue with other residents."

That seeming endorsement of Zimmerman exposes the 7-year-old association to possible legal action by Martin's parents, homeowners association attorneys said.

"It's almost like if you give your son the keys to a brand new Corvette when he turns 16" and he gets in an accident, said Roberto Blanch, a South Florida attorney who specializes in homeowners associations. "You may be seen as enabling the occurrence or the loss."

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Zimmerman has admitted to fatally shooting Martin during a confrontation Feb. 26 but has said it was in self-defense. Zimmerman spotted Martin from his truck as the teen was returning to the house of his father's fiancDee from a convenience store. It was dusk on a rainy evening.

"This guy looks like he is up to no good," Zimmerman told a police dispatcher before the confrontation.

When Zimmerman got out of his truck and started following him, the dispatcher told him, "OK. We don't need you to do that."

Moments later, residents of The Retreat at Twin Lakes heard screaming and at least one gunshot. Police officers arriving at the gated community found Martin shot dead in the chest.

By designating Zimmerman the neighborhood watch captain in the newsletter, the homeowners association "is stuck" if it's sued, said Justin Clark, an attorney based in Longwood, Fla., whose practice includes real estate law.

"So, if you're going to send out a newsletter saying, `Hey, he is the captain. Whatever he says goes,' You have now basically rented a free police officer for your neighborhood," Clark said. "He certainly took on that role with the homeowners association, and it seems to me that they recognized that."

Don O'Brien, an officer with the Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners association, said, "No," and closed the door on a reporter who contacted him at his home. No one answered the door at the homes of two other association officers, Jenna Lauer and Cynthia Wibker. All live inside the complex of more than 250 townhomes.

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