By now, we have all read about the national tragedy in Surfside, Florida, when the 12-story Champlain Towers South building partially collapsed into a pile of concrete and dust, leaving what is anticipated to be almost 150 people dead.
The Initial Reaction
When an event of this magnitude occurs, the press gathers, countries send rescue workers and every state and federal agency is ordered in to determine how something so senseless can happen . . . because lives have been ruined and people want answers. And in Miami, it will take a little while, but the answers will come, and scapegoats will be offered. Families will be rightfully outraged, tears will be shed, pictures of those lost will be hung on a building wall, surrounded by flowers and the grief process will linger for a long time as politicians posture. The Governor and President will declare a state of emergency and get Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) involved. Eventually, someone or some group will be charged criminally, bringing some closure to the families.
Injury Lawyers Cometh
Then, ever so quickly, phase II will come – the personal injury lawsuits will get into gear. Already, class action lawsuits have been started . . . but, although the investigation is moving at light speed, the lawyers will need to wait until the criminal investigation is complete for two reasons. First, because while a criminal matter is in progress, the DA and police won’t release necessary records for the civil case. Second, without the criminal findings, the injury lawyers will be at a distinct disadvantage in pointing blame, although I think we can all agree that whatever conjecture is out there, the press will leak their findings to sell newspapers and the lawyers will get their information anyway. Nonetheless, the lawyers will need to wait for the criminal documents themselves, because that is the certified evidence that they will physically need to make a part of their own cases.
In the meantime, the lawyers will begin to discuss the overall case value amongst themselves. Based on the ages of the deceased, income level and other factors, it would not be unusual for the estimated value of all these lives, in theory, to average a per person payout of $3 million each, or $450 million dollars in total. But no one entity carries close to a half billion dollars in insurance. So, the lawyers will have to use what turns up in the investigations to add any, and all, parties that might have played a role in this disaster to the lawsuit, in an effort to grab every available dollar for their clients.
How the Legal Process Typically Works
In the more typical single person accident – a worker is crushed on a job site – a woman is burned in the shower by scalding hot water – the answers don’t come as quickly because there aren’t 20 investigative teams digging through records and getting government authority to force potential culprits to hand over all of their files. Instead, it’s a slow grinding process, where the plaintiff’s lawyer hopes to find enough proof to enable them to force a settlement or win at trial.
In stark contrast to Miami, when the pressure isn’t on defendants, important records won’t be located, witnesses won’t cooperate and the lawyers’ job is much harder. That’s not to say people are inherently evil and cover-ups are the norm – it’s just that self-preservation kicks in – a worker that spots an important document or has something to say that might hurt his reputation or that of his employer, begins to worry that if he comes forward, he will lose his job – and his salary – and his pension – and then his own family will starve. He gets rid of the document, justifying his actions in not cooperating by saying “he knew it was wrong, but he did it for his family”.
Knowing this, in a smaller case, after an attorney is retained, he begins to theorize who might be responsible. The obvious answers are the building owner and management because they control the premises. A good lawyer can easily find these entities in the various Secretary of State and Corporate databases with a small amount of research. Sure, the contractor is a prime suspect, but it’s very hard to know what contractors a building has hired, because that’s not always public record. In time, however, those first named defendants, who have legal counsel defending them, and a lot more inside knowledge, will pass the blame and give up names for their contractor, who will be added to the lawsuit. Once brought into the case, the contractor will bring into the lawsuit his sub-contractors . . . and on and on the process will drag.
The Quick Information Gleaned in the Miami Investigation
So, let’s look at Miami, and the information already turned up, as a tool to understanding all the angles an attorney must look at when investigating a lawsuit. We know these towers are a condominium and a condominium has a Condominium Association that handles the building issues – Defendant #1.
Next, we have learned that, in Miami, a building is required to undergo a 40-year recertification process, as is required under Miami-Dade County building code to certify the building is structurally and electrically safe for the specified use for continued occupancy. The Condo Association already had hired an engineering company, who conducted this inspection, found the building to have suffered the normal wear and tear – some cracks in the concrete, some rusted steel and modest sinking– verbally informed the association of repairs required – and was in the process of finishing their research and drafting their report – Defendant #2.
The real investigation will happen after rescue efforts are concluded and the debris cleared. Possible targets will be the original architect, original contractor, and original sub-contractors. They will likely be off the hook because 40 years have passed, and the statute of limitations have expired. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out there was a big upgrade on the roof or in the building garage, that added stress to that section of the building. There was also a large pool at ground level. In that instance, that specific contractor will be brought in – Defendant #3.
Maybe, and I’m just speculating here, another nearby property was undergoing substantial construction, inserting pylons and drilling into the ground, that caused vibrations in the area that damaged this particular building’s foundation – Defendant #4.
Finally, I’m seeing potential angles here, where someone might allege that a local Planning and Zoning Board knew information, and might have gotten greased to look the other way, or simply ignored the problem out of laziness, when recommendations were being made to fix the problems – Defendant #5.
Of course, we will learn so much more over the next few months. Already announced is the retention of a world-renowned structural engineer that has examined many disasters. According to the news, he has already consulted with a geology company he intends to bring in to aid with his investigation.
How Plaintiff’s Lawyers will Spin The Case to Pull At Heart Strings – It’s not difficult to do here
After the criminal trial and the investigation results, any defendants brought into this matter will want to resolve the case so they can avoid financial ruin and more bad press. The plaintiff’s lawyers will suggest mediating and put on a presentation to illicit raw emotion. They’ll cite testimony of a resident, who will explain how he got out of bed to the sounds of thunder and saw the building was gone. They will compare the scene to the 911 Trade Center attack – I’ve already seen it in the news. They will show pictures of deceased family members and then explain that the entire body was never found, but bones were identified via DNA. They’ll say money won’t bring the loved ones back – but they still want a ton of money.
Defenses that will be Offered to Create Confusion and Reduce Financial Exposure
A good defense attorney will work with what they have. They will talk about how Miami Beach is a barrier island – built on sand and mud – that comes with risks due to shifting sands and rising sea levels. Perhaps an expert will suggest a sinkhole – an underground void that can be affected by rain and open -enveloped the building – not that uncommon in Florida. Or an expert will discuss how the building in question and many others in Miami, have been slowly sinking each year.
The End Result
Two or three years from now, you’ll wake up and turn on the news. You’ll hear the headline that lawyers of both sides, working relentlessly to resolve the Champlain Towers disaster, have reached a confidential settlement. Then they’ll give you estimates of the value, despite the confidentiality.