Nearly $1B Settlement Reached for Surfside

THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2022


In a recent hearing before Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman, attorney Harley S. Tropin announced a $997 million settlement involving the class-action lawsuit brought by the families of victims and survivors of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.

As a result of the partial collapse last June, dozens of people were injured and 98 perished.

Collapse Information

Around 1:30 a.m. on June 24, part of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, was reported to have collapsed. Made of up of three buildings, the towers were each 12 stories tall and contained 342 units.

That same day, more than 80 rescue units were reportedly on the scene. By Sunday, 35 victims were pulled from the structure with two more pulled from the rubble. Eleven of them were treated for their injuries.

A state of emergency was also declared on the day of the collapse, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate relief efforts at the scene, which also involved containing a fire within the debris. The following Saturday, Governor Ron DeSantis and Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett turned their attention to the “sister building” to the tower that fell, noting that it was built with the same team. Residents in Champlain Towers North began being aided by FEMA to find temporary housing.

Crews also reported that day that fire had been diminished.

That Sunday, heavy equipment was sent to the scene to help manage the shifting debris after rescuers dug a 125-foot-long trench (20 feet wide and 40 feet deep) to add to the around-the-clock excavation effort.

In later reports, it was determined that the partial collapse had resulted in the death of 98 people.

Tower Background

The complex was built in 1981 by late developer Nathan Reiber and Nattel Construction, which is listed as inactive in state records. Since the collapse, media outlets and the City of Surfside have uncovered documents surrounding the structure’s condition. According to a 2018 engineering report from Morabito Consultants, the condominium had “major structural damage” to its concrete structural slab below the pool deck that needed “extensive repairs.”

At the time of the collapse, consultants also acknowledged that the building was in the early stages of a three-year renovation plan, which had started with roof work about six weeks prior.

About the Lawsuit

At the end of November, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Champlain Towers South victims and family members, alleging that the construction of a neighboring luxury building is what triggered the deadly collapse.

The suit also contended that excavation and construction work on the adjacent Eighty Seven Park tower caused the Champlain Towers South to become unstable. The nine defendants include developers of Eighty Seven Park, an engineering firm, the Champlain Towers South condo association and a Miami law firm.

Champlain Towers, the lawsuit claims, “was an older building in need of routine repairs and maintenance, but it was not until excavation and construction began on the luxury high-rise condominium project next door” that the building became unsafe.

The document further explained that the excavation, pile driving and other construction work at Eighty Seven Park between 2016 and 2019 caused vibrations that weakened the structure. The suit also alleges that groundwater had been funneled from the new building to the Champlain Towers property basement after developers bought a small road separating the two.

While the 169-page document does not cite a specific amount for the damages, attorneys believed at the time that the number could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In response to the suit, defendants publicly denied that construction was responsible for the collapse, as the Eighty Seven Park is located directly south of the Champlain Towers site.

Latest Settlement Agreement

Earlier this month, Tropin announced a $997 million settlement in a hearing before Judge Hanzman. Still pending final approval, the settlement involves insurance companies, developers of an adjacent building and other defendants.

How the money will be divided among the relatives of the 98 victims will be determined in the coming weeks. However, lawyers have gone as far to say that the settlement for victims’ families could expand further, to surpass $1.1 billion in total, if they reached an agreement with a remaining company.

Among the companies that agreed to settle are the engineers who had inspected and begun to conduct work to address serious structural flaws in Champlain Towers South before the collapse.

Judge Hanzman said he would like to finalize the settlement before June 24 and compensate survivors and victims’ families by the fall.

According to The New York Times, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is still investigating what caused the 13-story, 135-unit building to partially collapse. Video released by a team of federal investigators during the trial showed evidence of extensive corrosion and overcrowded concrete reinforcement in the building.

Other Recent Settlement Agreement

A few months ago, Judge Hanzman announced plans to review tentative settlements agreed upon by two major defendants in a lawsuit regarding the tragedy.

The suit, which was filed against Maryland-based engineering company, Morabito Consulting, and the condo association’s representing law firm, Becker, accuses the two entities of negligence in the disaster.

After the collapse of the Champlain Towers South, it was reported that Morabito Consultants’ insurers initially refused to cover the company’s losses, and in turn, sued them for negligence. As a response, Morabito denied the allegations and sued its insurance companies, claiming it provided professional services to the condo association.

At the same time this lawsuit was filed, victims accused the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association’s law firm, Becker, for “callous, reckless, and conscious disregard” for the safety of residents. The suit also claimed that Becker “had knowledge of complaints from residents regarding the building’s condition for years before the collapse” and that the firm had a responsibility to warn residents about the building’s structural damages and associated risks.

As a result of these allegations, Miami-based attorneys representing relatives suing for wrongful death of the collapse, Rachel Furst and Tropin, worked with attorney Stuart Grossman, mediator Bruce Greer and additional attorneys for the insurers of the two firms to develop a settlement.

According to reports, the firms agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and were slated to avoid a trial on accusations of negligence. The settlement, however, required a review and approval by Hanzman.

In February, surviving Champlain South owners were offered an $83 million settlement to compensate their losses. This settlement was later approved by Hanzman to compensate people who suffered economic losses such as condominium units and personal property.

Ongoing NIST Investigation

In August, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s NIST announced its selection of a team of technical experts to investigate the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South.

The investigation team is headed by Judith Mitrani-Reiser, Associate Chief of the Materials and Structural Systems Division in NIST’s Engineering Laboratory. In her role, Mitrani-Reiser will lead the development and coordination of statutory processes for making buildings safer.

Glenn Bell, Co-Director of the safety organization Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures, and Co-Founder of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Technical Council on Forensic Engineering, has been assigned to serve as the team’s associate lead.

Other team leads and their projects include:

  • Jim Harris and Jonathan Weigand: Building and Code History;
  • David Goodwin and Christopher Segura: Evidence Preservation;
  • Ken Hover and Scott Jones: Materials Science;
  • Youssef Hashash and Sissy Nikolaou: Geotechnical Engineering; and
  • Jack Moehle and Fahim Sadek: Structural Engineering.

Throughout the investigation, the team is slated to provide regular updates on its progress, which will include public meetings with the National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee, annual reports to Congress and progress reports. However, the NIST reports that it will not issue preliminary findings or conclusions before publishing a draft report for public comment.

In early investigations of the collapse, the Miami Herald brought to light that the 12-story condominium tower had had multiple, extensive structural flaws present since the beginning of the building’s life—about 40 years.

Reportedly, the plans that came from a firm that no longer exists specified structural columns that were too narrow to accommodate the necessary amount of rebar to support the building. This meant that contractors had to choose between inadequately attaching floor slabs to supports or putting extra steel into columns that were too small.

Most experts weighing in on the matter chose the latter, which is a recipe for air pockets that accelerate corrosion.

Among the speculation that was looking at how a partial collapse of a patio could have brought down part of a 12-story building, The Washington Post also brought together engineers, construction plans and a computer simulation to come to two main scenarios.

First, if the deck initially collapsed where it joined the building’s facade, that could have overloaded the already-thin columns, causing them to buckle. Second, if the deck remained attached to the columns as it kept collapsing, that would have caused the tugging and twisting on the columns and the surrounding beams, causing them to fall.

Regardless of the final cause, building codes and inspections are already being reformed—with some Miami engineers saying that they have been evaluating 30-50 properties a week.

The Champlain Towers South investigation will be the fifth investigation NIST has conducted using authorities granted by the 2002 National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act. The Act reportedly gives NIST and its team the primary authority to investigate the site of a building disaster; access key pieces of evidence such as records and documents; and collect and preserve evidence from the site of a failure or disaster.

In addition, the Act also calls for NIST to issue reports and make recommendations to improve building codes and standards.

The NIST investigation into the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South is projected to take years to complete.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Commercial / Architectural; Condominiums/High-Rise Residential; Disasters; Fatalities; Good Technical Practice; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Inspection; Lawsuits; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Residential; Safety

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.