Updated: 6/28/2021 (originally published on 6/25/2021)
In the early morning hours of June 24, 2021, the Champlain Towers, located at 8777 Collins Avenue, Surfside, Florida 33154 crumbled to the ground horribly killing at least 10 people (as of this report), severely injuring dozens, and currently reporting at least 152 people missing.
Certainly, the lives of everyone involved have been horribly and negatively impacted. Neighbors and loved ones may be permanently injured or unfortunately, their loved ones may have been killed unexpectedly. And, for all those living in this building, even those in the parts of the building which have not collapsed, they are now homeless.
Questions will be raised, emails between residents and building management will be reviewed, communication between building management and vendors will be securitized, and discussions with city and county building inspectors will be criticized. Already there have been unsubstituted reports of ongoing building maintenance and visible cracks in the outer layer of the building.
There have been additional reports that residents and workers at the property heard rumblings from the building the previous day. There were other reports of major water leaks and a valet reported to officials that there was water rushing down into the building earlier in the day. We are also learning that there was a major roof repair that was ongoing, and the building was going through the required 40-year certification.
The cause of the collapse is still unknown and may very well take years to piece together and fully understand how a building only 40 years old can suddenly collapse without warning. However, one thing is for sure, a condominium that was built in the 1980s should not have collapsed and regular inspections and testing in most cases should have caught any issues.
If it is determined that local government officials failed to properly inspect the building, then there potentially could be claims against those responsible. However, in general, most government agencies are immune from liability through a legal theory known as Sovereign Immunity. Specifically, Sovereign Immunity is a legal doctrine that protects state governments and agencies from being sued civilly by individuals who have been injured by those working for or on behalf of the state, municipality, city, agency, etc. Fortunately, Florida waived its sovereign immunity for select types of civil legal actions. Included in those instances in which certain actions are identified to be negligence.
Governor Ron DeSantis stated at a press conference early Thursday morning that the scene looked much worse than the pictures shown across the media, “the TV doesn’t do it justice” and that “It is really, really traumatic to see the collapse of a massive structure like that.”
We are sure additional reports will be forthcoming in the next few days, weeks, and months and will help authorities understand what happened.
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What we have learned in the last 5 days!
The developers of the building were once accused of paying off local officials for building permits, and competitors of the developers have claimed that the developers were receiving preferential treatment during the permitting process at the time of construction. Unfortunately, the developer of the site has since passed in 2014, however it may be possible to go after his estate (or a business) if it can be proven that he bypassed building permits and cut corners during the construction process to save money. Additionally, in our opinion, if it is identified that it can be proven that the interested parties asked city officials and surfside officials to fast-track the permitting process as well as looking the other way during the inspection process at the time of construction, the town of surfside and the inspectors and other officials may be held accountable.
Plaintiff lawyers will also investigate the roles of Breterman Jurado & Associates, the consulting engineers of the development, and William M. Friedman & Associates, the architects. Mr. Manuel Jurado, of Breterman Jurado & Associates, stated that he oversaw the electrical and mechanical work while Mr. Breterman was in charge of the structural work, either way, if it can be proven that there was negligence during the construction of the building by anyone within the firm, as a partner Mr. Jurado could be held personally liable. Mr. Breterman, who died in the 1990s, the estate could also be held liable.
Mr. William Friedman of William M. Friedman & Associates died in 2018, but his estate could also be held accountable if negligence could be proven by the plaintiff attorneys.
In 2018 an engineering, Morabito Consultants, a firm led by Mr. Frank P. Morabito identified and warned the building that there was major structural damage to a concrete slab below the pool deck section, he found that there was waterproofing failures below the pool deck and entrance drive and stated “Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially” and stated that there was a “major error” made during the construction of the building. His firm also discovered “abundant cracking” and deterioration in concrete columns, supporting walls, beams within the parking garage under the pool deck, along with damaged and exposed rebar.
These concerning reports were provided to the condominium association. However, eighteen months passed from the time the engineering report was presented to the association to the time the association hired his firm to prepare a detailed repair plan. Yet, despite receiving the initial report in 2018 and the detailed repair report, the condominium association for Champlain Towers failed to carry out the repairs needed to maintain a structurally sound building. Plaintiff personal injury lawyers will be examining the actions, or lack thereof, of the association to determine if they were negligent in their duties.
What’s most interesting is that recently, residents of the Champlain Towers complained that vibrations from construction next door caused property damage including cracks in the building; of course, this could also have contributed to the issues related to the collapse. These issues will also be examined to see if the new construction may have exasperated the integrity of the building and may have led to the collapse.
In 2015 a building resident sued the building association due to water damage within the resident’s unit and the unwillingness of the building association to address the issue, this seems to be consistent with the way the building has been managed for years, an unwillingness or negligence by the building association to address concerns due to financial issues. Based on these reports, expect to see plaintiff wrongful death lawyers go after the potential negligence actions of the association utilizing current premise liability laws.
To prove a premise liability, claim the plaintiff and their lawyer will need to prove the following:
- Existing dangerous conditions were known;
- There was a proper and acceptable time to correct the dangerous conditions;
- The property owner/management created dangerous or hazardous conditions; and
- A failure to warn others of the known risks.
Based on the potential evidence currently available there could be a possible premise liability claim against the building management and building association due to failures to properly maintain the property and warn residents and visitors of the potential risks. And, in certain cases, under Florida law and well as condominium association bylaws, unit owners have the right to recover attorney’s fees, in addition to any damages the court awards.
Are Building Contractors or Vendors Liable for the Building’s Collapse?
So, because of the immense damage, loss of life, and injuries sustained, those people with claims will need to assess what entities and/or persons are liable beyond just the condominium’s management company and the condo association. Specifically, anyone bring a claim should investigate whether a building vendor may be responsible, in part, for the horrific damages. If it can be proven that contractors or vendors failed in their contractual duties to report potential liability issues promptly, in which they knew or should have known that damages could occur then a legal argument could be made that their negligence played a role in this disaster. As an example, if the building management hire vendors to assess potential issues and/or problems and those vendors knew about these issues and failed to act then they may be held accountable, additionally, if they knew and failed to report potentially dangerous issues to the building association then a plaintiff’s attorney would be able to prove gross negligence and hold the management company liable or partially liable. In fact, in some cases the condominium management or condo association may be exposed to punitive damages if they failed to report these issues or warn residents of the Surfside condo.
If the building had a maintenance company that was responsible for the continued upkeep of the building property and they failed to report certain issues to the building management or building association and which may have contributed to the tragedy then based on current law the maintenance company may be held liable for certain damages. Additionally, there were reports that the valet saw rushing water, was this reported to anyone, rushing water would be hazardous to the building, the parking structure, and the property located in the parking structure all of which the valet had responsibility for if they failed to report this issue plaintiff lawyers may be able to prove negligence and go after the valet company.
Under Florida Wrongful Death Act the descendants’ estates and surviving family members are eligible to bring a wrongful death claims. Specifically, plaintiffs may be entitled to recover both as the beneficiary of the estate and the survivor and the amount of compensation available to the survivors are usually more significant than damages recoverable by the estate.
Damages that are potentially recoverable under florida’s Wrongful Death Statutes include damages regarding:
- The Survivor’s Mental Pain and Suffering;
- Lost Protection, Guidance, and Support;
- Lost Services and Support;
- Child’s loss of Guidance, Companionship, and Instruction; and
- Medical, Funeral, and Burial expenses.
In a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff will need to prove that the death was a direct result of the negligence, wrongful acts, or recklessness of another party.
Will other buildings be affected by this tragedy?
Obviously, the area, building, and other residents of buildings surrounding the site are adversely affected by this tragedy, residents may be prevented from freely going into and out of their residences, deliveries will be delayed, businesses surrounding the area may be forced to close during the recovery period as well as the cleanup period. Two additional buildings and their residences which were developed by the same team as the Champlain Towers South and constructed around the same time may also be impacted; one can assume that if there were construction issues and maintenance issues with one building there may be issues with the other two towers as well. We encourage the building management as well as the city to conduct an in-depth safety review of these buildings to protect those living in these areas.
These businesses may also be entitled to compensation from the negligent parties; however, each case will be different.
What happens when a building is destroyed?
Most building collapses are preventable due to the strict city, county, and state governance and current building code standards which have been instated to prevent these types of events. In fact, South Florida has some of the strictest building codes in the country – in part because of the devastation caused by hurricanes. If a building or structure collapses, then there generally are human factors involved that cause this to occur. And, if so, these types of issues are generally referred to as product liability claims. Specifically, in order to have a product liability claim you must show:
- That construction companies and builders were obligated by law to protect people from unreasonable risks;
- That the defendant failed to do that duty;
- That there is a close link between the conduct and resulting injury; and
- That the hurt individual suffered actual losses or damages.
There are strict construction guidelines and inspections, including occupancy inspections and certifications. The most common form of failure is human error and sometimes greed in which issues were known yet not addressed due to concerns about financial loss. Here, in Florida, the more common cause of a building collapse or destruction is due to hurricanes, “soft ground” or sinkholes, and water-related issues – not generally human error. However, building collapses and failures is not always related to weather conditions or environmental issues. And, although rare, surprisingly, building collapses around the country and world are not uncommon.
In regards to the scene in Miami Florida the next few hours, days, and weeks law enforcement and rescue personnel, along with building inspectors and engineers will be devoted to rescuing operations in the short term and recovery later on, only then will authorities concentrate on understanding how this incident occurred and why, was it preventable and how to ensure something like this does not occur again or building damage and loss of life is mitigated in the future.
Right now, while the rescue and recovery operation is going on in full sight of the media, authorities are in the background asking questions and preventing the destruction or loss of key evidence, documentation, which can possibly help uncover what went wrong and why. When authorities start their investigation.
Authorities will examine building inspection records, building maintenance records, any code violations, as well as resident complaints to city authorities as well as to the building management. If there was work being done on the building, permits will be reviewed as well as the safety history of the construction companies working on the building and the employees working for those firms. Building materials will be reviewed to ensure they were up to code rather than materials that were nonresidential and commercial grade.
There will be many hours spent on the investigation by authorities and time is of the essence to secure the evidence needed for them to conduct their research. However, if you think you or a loved one was impacted by the building collapse you still need to act quickly as time is of the essence – Florida Statutes of Limitations provides for the time frame to take action and it is imperative for anyone who thinks they have a claim to act quickly and consult a lawyer.
What should owners and residents do now?
For owners and residents, it is also essential to ensure your rights are protected, your home will now be condemned, your processions may be lost, there will be months and possibly years before work can start to reconstruct the building and years before you can return to your home, in some cases you may not feel comfortable to return. There will also be issues when dealing with insurance companies. With so many carriers things can get confusing and certainly complicated, there will be various insurance carriers of the homeowners as well as the carriers of the building itself, and if construction or building maintenance was being conducted those many insurance carriers will also be involved and insurance claims for injuries and death will be brought.
If you wish to help our community recover there are many ways to do so, as of now there are two approved charities helping the community:
Support Surfside – www.supportsurfside.org
The Chesed Fund – https://thechesedfund.com/shulofbalharbour/miamitragedy
The Greater Miami Jewish Federation – https://jewishmiami.org/gift/surfsidebuildingcollapse/
The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami – https://www.ccadm.org/support-our-mission/?cid=701G0000000myZS
The Shul – https://www.theshul.org/8777
Additionally, the family reunification Center hotline which is set up to locate or report a missing family member can be reached at 305-614-1819 or 305-993-1071 or at https://www.miamidade.gov/311direct/#/form/c08/MISSINPE and is located at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside, at 9449 Collins Ave.
If you lived at the Champlain Towers you are encouraged to complete a wellness check at https://feedback.miamidade.gov/jfe/form/SV_ac7Teql190wnZ0a
If you have not yet reported a missing family member, please do so by going to the Family Assistance Center located at 9301 Collins Ave. in Surfside and speaking to an onsite detective, this location will be open 24 hours a day and will take DNA swabs from family members to help identify potential victims.
Our hearts and prayers go out to those families affected by this devastating event, however as injury attorneys, our job is to protect our clients who may be affected, if you or a loved one has been affected by this event, or know someone who has, please contact one of our personal injury trial lawyers immediately to ensure your rights are being protected.