By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Sometimes an HOA board’s poor decision leads to human tragedy. And that tragedy, in turn, opens up the Association to huge liabilities in personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits.
The latest report comes to us from Florida, the result of a bicycle accident.
In April 2016, James Schnurr was cycling behind his wife, Christine, when he crashed into a pole on the bicycle path of Jonathan’s Landing, in Jupiter, Florida.
When he hit the solid barrier on the path, Schnurr was thrown from his bicycle. Although he was wearing a bike helmet at the time, the successful SEC accountant sustained serious injuries, which paralyzed him from the chest down.
According to testimony at trial, Schnurr didn’t see the pole until it was too late. A jury agreed that the HOA was partially responsible for the bicycle accident, and recently awarded millions to Schnurr and his wife.
In 2016, after the accident left him disabled, forcing Schnurr to retire from his successful career, he and his wife sued Jonathan’s Landing Property Owners Association and Jonathan’s Landing Golf Club.
The couple is represented by Attorneys Gregg Schlesinger and Thomas Angelo.
According to an official news release posted at Schlesinger Law Offices, earlier this month, a jury awarded $41 million in total damages, allocating $16.8 million for medical expenses, $4.25 million for past and future lost wages, $5 million to Christine, for loss of companionship, and $15 million in non-economic damages.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lisa Small presided at trial.
Schnurr currently resides in rehabilitative care facility in Connecticut, where he receives care for medical complications associated with his paralysis.
As reported in the Palm Beach Post, a jury found Schnurr 50% responsible for the crash, while Jonathan’s Landing Property Owners Association (JL POA) and its Golf Club were found to be 45% and 5% responsible, respectively.
Attorney Todd Ehrenreich, who represented the association, says that JL POA’s liability is about $18.5 million.
By contrast, Johnathan’s Landing Golf Club agreed to a confidential settlement prior to the jury trial, thus limiting its share of liability.
HOA’s ‘poor decision-making’
Jonathan’s Landing is designed as a private enclave, with minimal through traffic. But one of the community’s roads does intersect the bike path.
About ten years ago, Jonathan’s Landing Property Owners Association decided to install several solid wooden poles at the intersection of Captain Kirle Drive. The HOA added the barriers to its 10-mile network of bicycle paths, it says, to prevent cars from using the bike path as a shortcut.
During the 5-week jury trial, Schlesinger presented evidence that the Association did not apply for a permit from Palm Beach County before installing the barriers. Neither did the HOA consult a transportation engineer, before proceeding with the project.
Because the board didn’t consult experts, they decided to add thick wooden poles, and painted them beige to blend in with their surroundings.
As a result of the neutral color of the poles, the barriers were not easily visible from a distance. As Schnurr’s attorney put it, the HOA was more concerned about the aesthetic appearance of the safety barrier than its function.
Expert witnesses at trial told jurors that, in order to ensure the safety of cyclists, the poles should have been made of flexible materials and painted bright yellow. Also, the bike path should have been painted with markings to alert cyclists of a barrier in advance of the intersection.
A pattern of poor decisions by HOAs?
Jonathan’s Landing HOA board made several bad decisions. They didn’t apply for a permit, and they didn’t consult experts before adding vehicle barriers on their bike path. Had they taken both of these actions, Schnurr’s accident might have been avoided.
At the very least, legal experts say that JL POA would have minimized its liability for injury, if it had properly installed the barrier and warned cyclists of its presence.
The HOA also could have limited its financial obligations, if it had entered into a settlement agreement with the Schnurrs prior to jury trial.
The case is reminiscent of two other notable HOA lawsuits, where boards were found liable for poor decisions:
Lamplight Village HOA, Las Vegas — $20 million verdict for Carl Thompson, who suffered a brain injury, when he was hit in the head by broken playground equipment on HOA property. The award was later reduced the $2 million, plus any future excess reimbursements obtained in litigation against the HOA’s insurer.
Villas on the Green Condominium Association, Jupiter, FL — $12 million verdict for parents of child who was struck by a car and killed at a busy intersection. The driver didn’t see the child, due to overgrown hedges that the Association had neglected to trim.
Two pending wrongful death lawsuits also allege poor decisions and negligence of HOAs:
Tragically, an 11-year old girl was allegedly killed by three shooters who opened gunfire at the home of the Sarabia family. The suspects say they intended to shoot up a neighboring home, inhabited by residents familiar to local police.
The homeowners allege that their HOA did nothing to deter crime or evict their neighboring tenants, despite a long history of illegal activity at the house.
A Chinese-American immigrant, Jiansheng Chen, was shot and killed by a private security guard on River Walk HOA property, following a brief confrontation with the security officer, Jonathan Cromwell.
Chen was parked in his vehicle near the community club house, playing Pokemon Go, when he was approached, ordered to leave the area, and the shot by Cromwell as he attempted to drive away.
Cromwell was recently convicted of 2nd degree murder in the incident.
The Chen family is suing Cromwell, City Wide Security, and the HOA. The lawsuit alleges that the HOA knew or should have known that Cromwell was a threat to the safety of its residents, based upon previous complaints and Cromwell’s employment history.
As all of these examples illustrate, your HOA can be hazardous to your health and safety, as well as your financial well-being.
Unfortunately, sometimes HOA board members focus on the wrong priorities. They worry too much about saving a buck to keep assessments low, avoiding conflict with certain residents or vendors, or obsessing over a consistent standards of appearance.
Sometimes HOA board members try to “wing it” on the job by making quick decisions, to appear confident in their roles of authority. That’s when they are most likely to make errors in judgment. ♦
By Jane Musgrave | Palm Beach Post
Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:38 PM Updated May 17, 2019 at 1:50 PM
By RON HURTIBISE | SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL | MAY 17, 2019 | 6:00 AM