The existence and enforcement of reasonable rules can protect an association from liability, but liabilities remain, especially when the association doesn’t or can’t enforce those rules all the time. Just as an owner might sue an association based on the board’s failure to enforce a nuisance rule, an owner also could sue if the association failed to enforce a rule that prohibits children from climbing common element trees or playing in common element parking areas. Theoretically, the association passed the rule because of the inherent danger associated with the activity, thus the association had a duty to enforce its rule to prevent the danger. Would such a theory hold up in court? Much stranger things have happened.
Associations should pass only rules that are essential to the health, safety and welfare of their residents–and ones that they can and will enforce. But what rules are essential? Each association must answer that question based on the circumstances and needs of the community. However, let’s take a look at the tree-climbing and parking-lot rules mentioned earlier.
A rule against children climbing trees on common elements could recognize both that children occasionally fall out of the trees they climb and that the trees can be damaged. Often the tree is too small for the size of the climber or the climber has tried smaller and weaker branches. In both cases, the damage to the tree may be accompanied by injury to the child. These certainly are legitimate interests, but do they warrant a rule? The association should ask first whether it needs the rule as a warning. In my opinion, most courts will recognize that children are naturally interested in climbing trees and may be injured by doing so. The courts also will recognize that it would be difficult, at best, to keep children out of a good climbing tree. Moreover, every child and parent already knows that if a climber falls from a tree, he or she likely will be injured. Thus, the rule is probably not necessary as a warning
The association should explore next whether it needs the rule as a deterrent-preventing climbing through fear of consequence. If the fear of falling is not a natural deterrent, I suspect that the fear of a fine or sanction (which mom or dad would have to pay) is not likely to do the trick–at least from the child’s perspective. Nor will it have a deterrent effect on parents. Those parents who would keep their children out of trees even if no rule existed don’t need the rule. Similarly, those who feel it is OK for their child to climb trees probably would find the rule silly and would not be deterred.
Then, does the association need the rule to protect association or owner property, or limit association liability? As for the property issue, trees lose limbs and branches naturally, so the loss of a few to climbers probably isn’t a big deal. If damage occurs to a tree on a lot, the owner probably has the right to make a claim against the master policy as well as his or her homeowners insurance policy.
The liability issue is more problematic. The mere existence of the rule may invite liability because the association will not be able to monitor all trees all the time. In actuality, most associations will not watch their trees unless a board member or manager just happens along and sees a climber.
Although it might seem ludicrous, a litigant certainly could claim that he or she relied upon the association’s rule to keep his or her child out of trees, and thus out of harm’s way.
The real problem, of course, is that this rule is not kid friendly. And, if the association passes such a rule without one or more of the elements mentioned earlier being of primary concern to the welfare of the association, the rule is not likely to have a positive effect.
Similarly, a rule prohibiting children from playing in common element parking lots appears to be a no brainer because it benefits all. However, looks are deceiving. In this case, both children and parents should know that playing in the parking lot is inherently dangerous. Parents also know that smaller children must be watched because a passing motorist may not be able to avoid a child darting between parked cars. Motorists also know to drive cautiously in a residential parking lot. Accordingly, a rule against playing in the parking lots is superfluous for warning purposes.
This rule won’t deter children from playing in the parking lots. Presumably, smaller children will be kept from these areas by parents or older siblings. Older children probably will play there whether the rule is known to them or not. Kids have been playing ball and skating in streets and parking lots as long as there have been streets and parking lots.
Finally, the existence of this rule is likely to have little positive effect on the association’s liability in the event of a tragedy. Let’s say that a child is injured by a vehicle in the parking lot. The association’s liability for such an incident, if any, will probably concern the lighting level in the parking lot or perhaps poorly placed plantings that impeded the driver’s view. If these circumstances contribute to the likelihood of the injury, having a rule against playing in the parking lots will not protect the association from liability. And, as in the previous example, a grieving parent could claim that, had the association enforced its rule, the child would not have been injured or killed.
So what appear at first impression to be two reasonable rules really have no redeeming value; they are not kid friendly. They are difficult or impossible to enforce. If anything, they might add to an association’s potential for liability. In short, they’re unnecessary.
The only kid-centric rules associations must have are those related to the swimming pool. Some associations also have rules related to the minimum age for use of tennis courts. Associations with a workout facility may need to have rules about equipment use as well. Otherwise, the best rules for children are the ones imposed by their parents. After all, the parents will be held responsible for damage done by children that is not covered by insurance.