One day before the one-year anniversary of the Surfside condominium collapse that killed 98 people, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman made his deadline and gave final approval to a $1 billion settlement of the second-largest class-action lawsuit in Florida history, which he praised in court on Thursday as “remarkable not only in terms of its size but for its speed.”
More than two dozen defendants who were sued for negligence after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24, 2021, agreed last month to pay $1,021,199,000 to resolve the wrongful death and personal injury claims of family members and survivors. The defendants, including the building’s security company, condo association law firm, consulting engineer on its 40-year recertification and renovation plan, and the developer and builders of the luxury condo next door, will pay portions using their insurance coverage. None admit any culpability in the tragedy.
“The standard for approval of this settlement is not whether this is the best possible deal or comparable to a trial verdict but whether it is fair, reasonable and adequate,” Hanzman said. “I could not be more proud of this agreement and the people who led this case. I’ve been on the bench for 10 years and handled a number of very difficult cases and this was one of a kind.”
Several family members and survivors came forward to thank Hanzman for consistently and occasionally abrasively pushing the pace of the proceedings to conclude the case within a year and avoid a lengthy and painful trial.
“I am physically here but I died along with my Malky,” said Eileen Rosenberg, mother of Malky Weisz, 27, who died in the collapse with her husband and father. “To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to going through the legal process that arose from this tragedy. I feared I’d be mired in it for a decade. Words cannot convey what Your Honor accomplished in record time. Your Honor masterminded a brilliant plan. Your sole priority has been to guide us through this with wisdom in the most painless way possible within the confines of the judicial system.”
The company paying the largest share of the settlement — nearly half of the total at $517.5 million— is Securitas Security Services USA. Its security guards monitored visitors at the front desk and operated the building’s alarm system on an emergency basis. But a manager for the company acknowledged in a deposition to the Champlain victims’ lawyers that Securitas hadn’t trained all its guards on how to use the system to alert residents to evacuate and it was not activated the night of the collapse.
At 1:15 a.m. on that night, the Champlain South’s pool deck caved into the underground parking garage, seven minutes before the mid and oceanfront sections of the building came down. Securitas’ guard called 911 twice, at 1:16 and 1:17 a.m., and was confused about the address, records show. She also attempted to call residents individually on their phones. But the guard, Shamoka Furman, did not press the button for the all-call alarm that was connected to intercoms in each unit. The system had been tested on June 8 by the day-shift guard and it was working.
“Seven minutes -- can you imagine how many people could have gotten out?” said Raysa Rodriguez, one of the surviving owners from the section that didn’t collapse. She is one of several survivors who described hearing “eerie silence” when they ran out into their hallways. “Seven minutes is a long time.”
The companies involved in the construction of the Eighty Seven Park condo at 8701 Collins Avenue just south of Champlain South accounted for about $400 million of the settlement, according to court filings. They were accused of causing damage during the driving of sheet piles several years prior to the collapse but denied any responsibility.
The payments, according to filings, include $28 million from 8701 Collins Development; $29 million from 8701 Collins Avenue Condo Association; $16 million from Bizzi & Partners Development; $157 million from John Moriarty and Associates of Florida, $25.7 million from NV5; $8.5 million from DeSimone Consulting Engineers; $25 million from Stantec Architecture; $5 million from Geosonics, and $6.9 million from Florida Civil. Others cited in the settlement: Western Waterproofing Company of America, which agreed to pay $25 million, and Concrete Protection & Restoration, which agreed to pay $11 million.
Morabito Consultants, an engineering firm consulting for the Champlain Towers South condo association, agreed to pay $16 million, and the Becker law firm $31 million. The town of Surfside agreed to pay $2 million.
Hanzman commended the dozens of lawyers working on both sides of the case, calling them “Hall of Famers.”
“A more complex case than this is hard to imagine,” he said. “It involved economic, personal injury and death claims. It involved a black swan event for which it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the cause.
“If litigated, there would be cross claims and third party claims. The settling parties had a number of viable defenses that might well have proven their conduct did not contribute to this event. Assuming all those hurdles were cleared, there would be some 150 individual trials on each claim. The case would have easily, easily taken over a decade to resolve. These victims and families would have had to endure this trauma over and over and over again if not for this settlement.”
Hanzman defended the $96 million settlement reached during contentious mediation that will be split in proportion to unit size among the owners of the 136 condos, both those who survived and those who died.
“There are survivors who believe they should have received more money for the property they lost. I have empathy for them but I simply disagree,” he said. “As traumatic an episode as they went through they have to realize there are many people who rightly or wrongly believe the owners’ inability to maintain the building was a cause. Had this case played out legally I believe there is a substantial likelihood their equity would’ve been wiped out to pay liability for wrongful death.”
Hanzman will oversee claims hearings in August during which relatives will make a case for what their loved ones’ lives were worth and survivors will make a case for what their physical and psychological injuries are worth. It’s expected to be an emotional and deeply personal process and Hanzman ruled Thursday to keep the hearings private and follow another tight deadline to finish by Aug. 26.
“As for wrongful death claims, there is no amount of money in the world to adequately compensate people for their loss,” he said. “Under the law the court will do whatever it can do to ascribe value to their lives. It sounds cold, sounds harsh. That’s all we can do and we’re going to do it. It will be a far better result than what would’ve been achieved after a 10-year litigation slog.”
Hanzman also decided to wait on deciding what to pay the lawyers until after the claims payments are determined. Over three dozen lawyers who originally agreed to work on the case and be compensated at the judge’s discretion have submitted a claim for $100 million in fees.
Hanzman offered to pay mediator Bruce Greer for his “heroic” work of over 1,000 hours. But Greer said he wanted no pay.
“I took the case at your request and initially turned it down because I knew it was a tragedy with no happy ending and no compensation for victims that would ever be OK,” Greer said. “But I felt there had to be an unprecedented community response to this unprecedented tragedy. I agreed to work pro bono, and pro bono is pro bono. Whatever fees you were going to allocate to me please allocate to the victims.”
Greer gave a glimpse into the arduousness of mediating agreements that nearly fell apart.
“There were 40 defense lawyers in this case, many representing insurance companies, who were motivated to get a result fast,” he said. “But settling that side was like a Rubik’s Cube. Many times it appeared there would be no deal. The greatness of the plaintiffs’ lawyers has been stated over and over but the defense lawyers were of equal skill.”