Even though the hunt for traces of life in the building collapse of the fallen Champlain Towers South continues over a week later, the legal procedure in Florida is already started to find out why it happened and who is to blame.
Authorities have launched criminal and civil investigations into the collapse of the seaside condominium complex, which resulted in the deaths of at least 28 people and the disappearance of over 117 others. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle of Miami-Dade promised to put the case to grand jurors as soon as possible, who may propose criminal charges or merely examine the situation and recommend improvements.
At least five lawsuits have been brought on behalf of survivors or those believed to be dead. The fall, according to one lawyer engaged in the case, raises broad worries about infrastructure issues and the faith we have in people in charge of them.
“We deserve to be able to walk into buildings without fear of them collapsing around us, and to know that our loved ones can go to bed at night without fear of falling 12 stories to the ground below in their sleep,” said Jeffrey Goodman, whose Philadelphia-based firm filed suit on behalf of missing resident Harold Rosenberg’s children.
The Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, as well as a local architect and engineer, have been accused of negligence in the lawsuits filed thus far for neglecting to solve significant structural concerns that were identified as early as 2018. The conversations included a Surfside town building inspector, and Goodman’s company has filed a notice of intent to add the town as a defendant.
Building owners, architects, engineers, inspectors, and safety specialists all play a responsibility in ensuring that buildings are safe for their inhabitants, according to Goodman.
Given the trauma experienced by board members, one of whom remains missing, a court-appointed receiver to represent the condominium association’s interests at a hearing on Friday. According to the judge, the board has roughly $48 million in insurance coverage, but the coastal site is worth $30 million to $50 million.
The judge expressed optimism that the case will be concluded swiftly, maybe within a year. Until then, he gave the receiver, attorney Michael Goldberg, permission to provide residents $10,000 apiece for temporary accommodation and $2,000 to cover burial costs.
Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, who also represents the Rosenberg family and is attempting to gain access to the site, explained that such disputes aren’t only about the money.
“They want to turn this into a search for answers,” Mongeluzzi added. “We feel there is still evidence.”
The condominium association’s attorneys and board members did not reply to requests for comment through email.
The fall of an unbraced wall of a structure being destroyed in Philadelphia in 2013 is one such example with probable legal connections. It tipped over into a nearby Salvation Army shop, killing six people and wounding 13, with one lady being found alive 13 hours later after losing both legs and undergoing more than 30 operations before dying this year.
A civil jury held the Salvation Army, the building’s owner, and his architect mainly liable in the subsequent trials, and the parties agreed to pay $227 million in damages.
On the criminal side, the architect was granted immunity in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors, while a former food cart driver turned contractor was acquitted of third-degree felony murder charges but sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter; a forklift driver who was taking prescription drugs for an injury was also sentenced to prison.
The fall also spurred the city of Philadelphia to dispatch inspectors to demolition sites, resulting in more stringent restrictions.
A grand jury in Florida is currently investigating the 2018 collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University, which claimed the lives of six people. Following the 1996 disaster that killed 110 persons aboard ValuJet 592 in the Everglades, both manslaughter and third-degree criminal murder charges were filed.
Denis Bender, a tort law professor at Chapman University in Orange County, California, who analyses large-scale catastrophes, sees a rising trend in such instances to pursue criminal charges, typically for carelessness, in addition to seeking damages. That might be because we’re seeing them more and more in actual or near-real-time, as we saw with the terrible pictures broadcast from Surfside across the globe last week.
“I believe it is rising as a result of the media and social media — not because there is a drumbeat out there, but because everyone is appalled by what they can see. And there’s a cry for justice,” Binder explained.
“In today’s society, there’s a lot of pressure to find flaws in something extraordinary like this,” he added. “And there’s already enough proof (in Surfside) that individuals made poor choices.”