The tragic collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, left 98 dead. Sorting through the catastrophe of epic proportions will likely take years. Legal experts predict the answers families demand will be hard to come by, and legal recourse, even harder. The lessons to be learned from such an unspeakable disaster may be key to preventing the next one.
The rubble of Champlain Towers South is gone now, leaving a hole where dozens of families once lived. What debris wasn’t turned to dust has been safely moved off-site and arranged for experts to examine. Investigations into the cause of the collapse have already begun. The building’s base is under intense scrutiny, offering what many engineers believe to be the first signs of failure. The tower was built atop a concrete podium, with piles buried deep into the sandy ground to provide stability. A 2018 assessment obtained by the New York Times warned of water damage resulting from storm surge and underground seepage. That same year, an engineering report on the building detailed cracking and crumbling in the building’s support columns, walls, and beams.
The day of the collapse, a 911 caller described a ground-level deck caving into the parking garage below. Video looking down into the garage captured just moments before the collapse shows water and debris pouring from above. Water damage in the deck above the garage was well documented. Planters holding palm trees, not originally part of the building’s design, were likely adding thousands of pounds of weight directly above the critical support columns. Though the palm trees were removed years ago, precisely because of the damage they were causing in other ways, the weight and poor waterproofing may have contributed to the fatal erosion of the columns.
An engineer working for the complex also noted the building’s lack of drainage on the pool deck in 2018, calling it a ‘major error.” A core sample of the building’s pool deck slab taken in 2020 found no original waterproofing, causing the concrete to crumble away. Extra beams that could have bolstered the building’s integrity included in the original design were never constructed. Engineers studying the collapse have concluded the building was constructed without adequate support. The pool deck had little or no reinforced steel, causing it to be punctured by the support columns when it collapsed. Signs the building was improperly built and maintained over four decades are around every corner. That’s precisely why finding answers and assigning blame will be so hard and will take years.
The horrific loss of life means victims are looking for anyone they can find for reconciliation, but even if legal responsibility can be determined, just recourse may be next to impossible. “The list of possible people responsible is a long one,” said Tyler Berding, founding partner at Berding & Weil, a law firm specializing in constructions defects. “It starts at design, did they have adequate rebar? Was it connected to the columns? Possibly not. That then goes back to the original contractor or designer, but they’re probably out of reach from any victims seeking litigation because of the passage of time. Some are not alive, or out of business. Any insurance they had would not cover a loss 40 years later.”
Then there are the various members of the building’s board of directors, residents tasked with the building’s operations and the professional engineers that maintained and routinely inspected the building. “There may be some liability there,” Berding said. “In order to find someone liable, you have to connect their actions with causation. Did they do, or not do, something that resulted in the damage? If you’re going back 15 to 20 years, that’s going to be very difficult.”
We know in 2018 that engineers made a series of recommendations to the building’s board of directors saying what repairs and maintenance the building needed, principally waterproofing. It took the board of directors, essentially an HOA, a couple of years to raise the funds to implement those recommendations, which they did not fully complete. We still don’t know the extent of the recommendations, but we do know they were costly, around $18 million. Still, fully completing the recommended maintenance is not guaranteed to have prevented the tragedy. For whatever reasons, owners were unwilling or unable to fund the amount need for repairs for quite a while. Then there’s the fact the engineer recommended repair, not an evacuation.
Lawsuits were filed by residents and family members against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association less than 24 hours after the collapse, alleging failed maintenance. Another lawsuit lists Morabito Consultants and SD Architectures as defendants for failing to properly warn residents. If found legally liable, those responsible could face charges of manslaughter by culpable negligence, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in jail. Civil suits seeking financial damages will struggle with recourse. The building has five insurers, two have already paid out their $3 million policy limit, victim attorneys say there is up to $48 million in coverage yet to be processed. That’s just the beginning of what lawyers say could amount to nearly $1 billion in damages. Getting the money will be another matter, there may not be a ready source of recovery. The sale of the property could generate tens of millions but is unlikely to get anywhere close to what victims are entitled to.
“There is no doubt that there’s culpability. There is no doubt that there is unspeakable negligence,” Lawyer Jorge Silva, who is representing wrongful death victims and condominium owners, told NBC. “There is no doubt that this building was screaming for years that exactly this would ultimately happen.”
Surfside Commissioners recently rejected a proposed deal that would trade public beachfront to the eventual buyer of the site so that a memorial to the victims could be constructed. The proposal called to move the community center on the property to make way for the memorial, selling the original community center land to help provide compensation for victims. Miami-Dade Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuit, said such a deal would only be permitted if the community center made way for a new luxury condo. The swap would also forgo the sale of the collapse site, which currently has an offer of $120 million on the table, and by doing so remove one of the few options for financial recourse available to victims.
“It’s ridiculous we have to fight for this,” said one woman at the land swap hearing. “I cannot have a building built where he died, where his cousins died, where all of them died.”
Champlain Towers South could just be the start. Constructed in 1981, the project was one of the first to rise after a moratorium on such developments was lifted. High-rise condos built on podium slabs now line much of Florida’s most desirable beaches, exposed to corrosive marine environments. Champlain Towers could be the first indications of the ravages of time on the construction boom of South Florida in the 1980s. The hope is that the tragedy helps to head off further issues by having other buildings take maintenance more seriously. So far, four other condo high-rises have been ordered to evacuate based on similar signs. Local jurisdictions are already becoming more vigilant, requiring more intrusive inspections that can see underlying issues. Condo owners will foot the bill for expensive repairs, impacting the desirability of beachfront high-rise living. HOA’s will be forced to come up with better ways to raise reserve funding needed for maintenance.
The legal and regulatory fallout from the Champlain Tower disaster is only just beginning. Litigation is the start of a process that will take years. It’s likely a judge will appoint some type of mediator that will try to allocate what assets can be identified and try to negotiate a settlement among all parties. With a tragedy this complex, seemingly brewing for decades, the burden of proof required in courts is practically insurmountable. Victims may never get closure. While the cases are still years from their conclusion, for now, the best possible outcome may be raising awareness and preventing a similar tragedy.