What is an Association’s Duty Before a Wildfire Strikes?

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By Kieran J. Purcell, Esq.

Typically, an association is charged with enforcing its governing documents.  Some aspects of pre- and post- wildfire related activities may be covered by an association’s CC&Rs or Rules (e.g., deadlines for reconstruction of damaged property or architectural approval) but many are not (e.g., the association’s ability to compel brush abatement on owner’s separate interest property).  Yet homeowners may look to the association, if not for actual enforcement activity, then for leadership in this issue.

Providing Voluntary Services

If an association is not required to provide pre-and post- wildfire services pursuant to its governing documents, then any services provided by an association are purely voluntary and with that comes risks.

Consider the 2018 O’Malley v. Hospitality Staffing Solutions case in which a hotel employee voluntarily undertook a welfare check at the request of a guest’s spouse.  The employee did not find the injured plaintiff during his welfare check, but she was found by her spouse sometime later.  The injured plaintiff sued the hotel alleging the employee’s welfare check was not thorough enough and had she been found earlier, she would have received more timely medical care and her injuries would have been less extensive.  The court in O’Malley held that if someone is giving aid to another, then the person providing the aid has to exercise due care.  If the person providing the aid fails to exercise due care and that failure increases the risk of harm to another or if harm is suffered because the other relied on that person’s aid, then the person providing the aid may be liable.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned from the O’Malley case?  If an association voluntarily renders services for the protection of others, it must exercise reasonable care in doing so or the association may be liable under a “negligent undertaking” theory of liability for its failure to exercise reasonable care.

Many homeowners assume their association will render some sort of relief or emergency services should a natural disaster occur.  Some associations even provide periodic reminders or create an “Emergency Preparedness Plan” or an “Emergency Preparedness Committee.”  If your association is going to provide such voluntary services, the association should: (1) clearly inform its residents of the services the Association will and will not voluntarily provide; (2) consult with an expert as to how the association can provide the best quality services possible; and (3) confer with its insurance expert to obtain insurance for any insurable risks.

Premise Liability

Negligence arises when an association, through its board of directors, knows or should know there is a risk of property damage, fails to take reasonable action to prevent such damage, and this failure proximately causes property damage.  The types of negligence asserted against associations are myriad and diverse.  Some of the more common varieties concern premises liability.

Could an association be held to the same standard of care as a landlord regarding premises liability?  In short, the answer is “yes.”  In Frances T. vs. Village Green Owners Ass’n, the California Supreme Court held that in certain instances an association has a duty to investigate criminal activity and take appropriate safety measures, just as a landlord would for his or her tenants.  The Court’s rationale for its holding in Francis T. is that, like a landlord, the association manages and controls the common area, so when a hazard is foreseeable the association has a duty to exercise due care for its resident’s safety in those areas that are under its control.  A court might impose a similar duty on your association if a wildfire is foreseeable because your community is located in high risk area for wildfires.  If your community is located within such an area, your association should consult with an expert as to the kinds of wildfire mitigation measures your association should implement as part of its common area maintenance and your association should implement them if it is able.

Breach of the Duty to Maintain

An association could be liable, even if it was not negligent, if it failed to adequately discharge its maintenance duties as required in its governing documents.  In Franklin v. Marie Antoinette Condominium Ass’n., a building component the association had a duty to maintain, pursuant to its CC&Rs, leaked resulting in property damage to an owner’s condominium.  The owner of the condominium sued the association for breach of the association’s duty to maintain and for negligence. The court in Franklin discussed how an association might be liable regardless of whether it acted negligently if the association had a duty under its CC&Rs and it breached that duty.

Good Samaritan Laws

Will an association be protected as a “Good Samaritan”?  California Health & Safety Code section 1799.102(b)(2) offers some protection to “Good Samaritans,” but under fairly narrow circumstances.  In relevant part it provides, “no person who, in good faith and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care or assistance at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission other than an act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”  A careful reading of this language shows it may provide immunity to an individual, who renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency, but not an association as a corporate entity.

So, what’s an association to do?  A good place to start is by reviewing the association’s governing documents, for example:

Easement Rights

Generally, CC&Rs grant the association and owners nonexclusive easement rights of ingress and egress through the common area and separate interest property for specified purposes, e.g., maintenance the association or owner is obligated to perform under the CC&Rs.  However, do your association’s CC&Rs allow it to access an owner’s separate interest property to do brush abatement, clear debris, or other common pre/post-wildfire activities?  And if so, do the CC&Rs permit the association to impose an individual assessment to recover its costs if it performs these tasks after an owner fails to do so?  Does the association have the authority to: (a) barricade damaged common areas; (b) control or limit access over streets; (c) open gates to admit emergency vehicles; and (d) shut-off utility valves, cap leaks and repair non-common area lines?

Exculpatory Clauses

An exculpatory clause is a provision in an association’s CC&Rs which typically exonerates it from liability for certain types of damages.  California courts have accepted the validity of exculpatory clauses in CC&Rs, which exonerate an association from having to reimburse an owner for property damage caused by a failed component the association had a duty to maintain, when the failure was not due to the association’s negligence.  (See the Franklin v. Marie Antoinette case.)  If your association still has its original 1970’s era CC&Rs, it’s unlikely they will contain such an exculpatory clause.  However, if your CC&Rs were written or amended within the last 20 years or so they may contain an exculpatory clause, and if so, this may impact the association’s liability for property damage after a wildfire occurs.

Insurance Obligations

Most governing documents contain insurance provisions, but they can vary greatly from association to association, so it’s a good idea to consult with your association’s community management team, its insurance broker, and legal counsel to: (1) confirm that your association is meeting its existing insurance obligations and (2) determine if additional insurance coverage is a good idea (e.g., guaranteed replacement cost or anticipated emergency activities coverage).

Damage, Destruction and Partition

CC&Rs often contain provisions establishing the duties and responsibilities of owners in the event their separate interest property is damaged or destroyed by fire or another casualty.  It is common for these provisions to require owners to rebuild, repair, or reconstruct their separate interest property in a manner substantially similar to its condition/appearance prior to the casualty or as approved by the association within a specified period of time.  Is the specified time limit (sometimes as short as 30 days) adequate?  Consider the feasibility of the time limit not only from the stand point of a single property being damaged, but also following a conflagration like the 2007 Witch Creek fires, in which over 1,000 homes were destroyed.  What triggers the start of this time clock?  The date of the loss?  Or, something which sounds logical-like the date owner receives insurance proceeds-which may be difficult or impossible to accurately determine.

The above list of governing document provisions to consider is provided solely for the purposes of discussion and is not intended to be an all-encompassing list.  If your review of your governing documents identifies areas of concern, you may wish to consider working with your community management team and legal counsel to amend your governing documents.