The glare of publicity is now on George Zimmerman, who, as a Neighborhood Watch captain, admits shooting Trayvon Martin to death in a Sanford, Fla., suburb on the night of Feb. 26.
But attorneys and insurers see wider implications in the case. Was Zimmerman representing The Retreat at Twin Lakes community, where he lived and patrolled? Was his effort to keep the community "safe" supported by its property manager? And was he operating with the approval of the Sanford Police Department, which communicated with him?
These questions are sure to be raised when the Martins almost certainly files civil suits seeking damages for the death of their son. And these actions could force the Twin Lakes community into bankruptcy or even cost residents their homes. Ultimately, all of this will raise questions about how we protect ourselves, and at what cost.
The Insurance Information Institute, recently cited an Orlando Sentinel story about the legal fees that could be incurred by the 200-home townhouse community. They could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars and require the association to issue a special assessment to cover it. According to the Sentinel, any attempt by the association to declare bankruptcy probably would not sit well with a judge, and if a suit by the Martin family is successful, each home could be used as "collateral to cover the damages."
Faced with those kinds of bills, every community with a security force, volunteer or otherwise, will have to get liability insurance to cover itself against the possibility that one of its members will harm someone, or be harmed. This could happen any time they a security member stops someone on their street, asks for identification and meets with resistance.
And the cost of that insurance could become prohibitively high if there are more incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin. Insurers are likely to ask for high premiums in areas where guns are prevalent. As with any insurance product, when the risk rises, so do the rates.
Gated communities that use private security forces probably already have liability insurance, but a big settlement in the Martin case could raise their rates. For police and cities like Sanford, the question will be whether to support Neighborhood Watch programs like the one in Twin Lakes, to register and communicate with volunteers like Zimmerman or to provide them with training. Cities and police departments may choose the alternative: Drop support for Neighborhood Watch programs and avoid the issue of liability.
In other words, is it safer or more dangerous to allow volunteer groups to operate unsupervised?
Ironically, this could leave insurers in the position of setting standards for neighborhood protection. If they are providing liability coverage, they will be the ones that set the rules on who can be stopped, when and under what circumstances. Insurers already set criteria like this when insuring homes and businesses. For example, insurers may require installation of smoke alarms as a condition of coverage.
A scary proposition
Absent strict rules, insurance companies are likely to shut down Neighborhood Watch programs, particularly those sponsored by police, because the liability for the municipality is huge.
The consequences of what happened in Sanford on Feb.26 are frightening.. A life was lost, and a price will have to be paid. But that cost may become so high that the ability of communities to protect themselves will be compromised. At a time when police are facing manpower cutbacks throughout the country, and more people are buying guns for personal protection, that's a scary proposition.