The Miami community is reeling from the Surfside condominium collapse, which has (at the time of writing) taken the lives of 94 individuals, with 22 still unaccounted for as recovery personnel continue to dig through the rubble. The catastrophe is as shocking as it is heartbreaking. Surely, no one could have anticipated that such a terrible tragedy could occur, certainly not in a major metropolitan city like Miami. The facts that are emerging, however, suggest that this tragedy may very well have been avoided.
Three years before the collapse, a consultant reported evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool. He also reported “abundant” cracking and deterioration of columns, walls, and other internal structures to the condominium. Just three months before the disaster, the President of the condominium association was reportedly warned of significantly worsened damage to the building. Investigators are likely only beginning to uncover evidence of neglect leading up to this disaster.
The legal ramifications of this tragedy will be massive and far-reaching. Multiple lawsuits have already been filed seeking class action status. While sights are currently trained on the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, other parties are likely to be named defendants as evidence mounts; a local architect, a Surfside building inspector, and the Town of Surfside itself are all potentially liable.
The law firms working this case will have to prove two general elements in order to recover for their clients: (1) the defendant(s) acted negligently, and (2) the defendants’ negligence is what caused or substantially contributed to the collapse.
A major component of negligence is the failure to complete one’s duty. Most people have very basic duties towards others (i.e. duty to exercise reasonable caution when operating a motor vehicle). Duties, however, vary depending on the relationship between people and entities. The Condominium Association, for instance, has a duty to reasonably maintain the building for the safety and security of the residents. It also has a duty to take reasonable actions when it knows or should know of a danger to the residents. Given the nature of the collapse, it is all but certain that evidence of negligence by the condominium association will emerge.
A consulting engineering firm, Morabito Consultants and SD Architects, are also accused of negligence in failing to warn the condominium association to evacuate after finding significant structural damage in 2018. If the firm had known or had reason to know that the building was not safe for its residents – and failed to warn the association to evacuate residents– then it, too, may be liable. The Town of Surfside could also be dragged into litigation. A failure to enforce building codes or properly inspect the building may have contributed to this disaster. There may be even greater evidence of negligence after the Morabito report in 2018. The injured parties may be able to show that the city was required to hire an independent investigator after the building’s hazards became apparent. All of these potential claims are the tip of the iceberg. A disaster of this magnitude indicates a failure of authority on multiple levels.
A major hurdle will be obtaining a sufficient recovery for the victims and their families. Given the sheer volume of damage and lives lost, litigation will likely demand hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. However, the condominium is only insured up to 48 million dollars. One option for the plaintiffs will be to seek recovery from third parties such as the consulting firm and municipalities. This will allow them to max out multiple insurance policies, ensuring a larger recovery. Another option will be to sue the association personally for damages exceeding the policy limits. This approach is not always ideal as the liable party cannot always afford to pay out the total judgment.
Fortunately, there are many months ahead for the litigating attorneys to gather evidence and mount a case against the liable parties. One thing is for certain: those who neglected their duties likely caused this horrific disaster and will be made to pay the maximum penalty under the law. However, only time will tell as to whether the families will be compensated in full for their devastating and likely preventable loss.