Monday, October 24, 2011

What is your community association's responsibilities when it comes to wild animals?

This past weekend, I received several calls from neighbors advising that an alligator had been spotted in the canals and lakes in my community and also received two email blasts from our board alerting us to the alligator's presence and urging that care be taken particularly with small dogs and children. The board also advised that a trapper had been contacted to relocate the animal elsewhere given its size.

It should really come as no surprise that alligators and a plethora of other wildlife appreciate our community as much as the two-legged inhabitants do. After all, this community was built in the late '70's in what was then almost the edge of the known universe in western Broward County. Our community prides itself on the abundance of wildlife just outside our doors; we even had an otter who loved to entertain with his antics in our canals at one point. However, despite the community's warm embrace of this "outdoorsy" lifestyle, what would happen should that alligator or any other of our wild inhabitants injure or kill a human or pet?

The Georgia Supreme Court is struggling with this very issue right now. Last week, Georgia's highest court agreed to take up a case that those of us living in community associations in Florida (and other associations around the country in areas replete with wildlife) would be well advised to monitor. In October, 2007, an 83-year old woman was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law in a coastal community known as The Landings. The woman was killed in a grisly alligator attack and was later found in one of the community's many lagoons. A trapper found and killed the 8-foot gator and evidence that it was responsible for the woman's death was obtained.

The family members then sued their homeowners' association claiming that it should have done a better job protecting the safety of residents and visitors in a community where alligators are common. The family won at the appellate level. One of the main issues to be raised before the Georgia Supreme Court is whether the legal doctrine known as "animals ferae naturae" should shield the association from liability in connection with death or injury that can naturally occur when humans and domesticated animals come into contact with wild animals. That doctrine would typically provide such a shield so long as the property owner had not reduced the wild animals to its possession or control or introduced a non-indigenous animal to the area. Since alligators are indigenous to coastal Georgia (and throughout our fair State as well) it is possible that the Georgia Supreme Court could absolve the association of liability in connection with the attack.

This case bears watching and associations that do have indigenous wildlife that is capable of injuring or killing humans and domesticated animals within their boundaries, should be discussing what can be done to minimize harm and maximize safety. In my community's example, residents received a series of alerts and the board called out a trapper to catch and relocate the animal. Boards that become aware of a dangerous animal's presence and do nothing may be setting the stage for catastrophic consequences.

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