QUESTION: We had an arson at our clubhouse. The prime suspect is living next door to me. The suspect was expelled from school for arson and killing a classroom bird. He is now enrolled in an outpatient mental health program. Are board members acting properly by being secretive about the arson? The only ones that have shown any concern about my safety have been the guards.
ANSWER: What you described is scary both for you and the board. Boards have a duty to exercise due care when it comes to the membership's safety. That includes protecting members from foreseeable criminal activity. The association's duty is not unlimited; members must also be vigilant to protect themselves from harm. In this case, your board should at a minimum notify the membership that a possible arson occurred in the clubhouse and ask everyone to be alert to any suspicious activity.
Disciplinary Hearing. If the board has evidence that your neighbor set the fire, it should hold a disciplinary hearing and make a good faith determination as to whether he committed the deed. If there is sufficient evidence, your neighbor can be fined and specially assessed to pay for repairing the fire damage (unless insurance has already paid).
Obligation to Warn? If the board determines that your neighbor set the fire, it may have an obligation to alert the membership of the person's identity. Doing so allows members to take appropriate steps to protect themselves. Unlike municipalities, associations do not have governmental immunities and can be held liable for injuries and damage caused by their negligence. The courts have likened associations to landlords and have increasingly imposed liability for criminal activity. Consequently, if the board knows of a threat to the community and does nothing to protect the membership, it could be liable for any subsequent injuries or damage.
Juvenile Arsonist. If the arsonist is a juvenile, boards should be cautious about reporting his name to the membership. Not even courts or newspapers publicly disclose a minor's name when they commit non-homicidal crimes.
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