A TRAGEDY WITH MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

I was lucky enough to be on vacation the past two weeks.  On my last day, I woke up to the tragedy that was unfolding in Dade County as the Champlain Towers South Condominium came crashing down in Surfside.  There are still over 150 people missing or unaccounted for.  Before commenting on this devastation that will no doubt change the way Boards and counties and municipalities inspect condominiums going forward, let’s start by feeling terrible for the victims and families of this tragedy.  My heart truly goes out to them.

I’ve seen a lot of strange things happen in my legal career.  I’ve seen owners spray their unit with ammunition from an AK-47.  I’ve seen unit owners throw contents of an entire apartment over their 20 story balcony from roid rage, I’ve seen owners store dangerous toxic chemicals in their unit.  But, you know what I have never seen………..a building like the Champlain Towers simply collapse.  Sorry, I’ve never seen that before.  We have all seen buildings that collapsed after a terrorist attack and buildings that were destroyed by a hurricane.  But I don’t believe we have seen anything quite like what happened here.

So…….what the hell really happened?

Apparently, an Engineer gave the Board of Directors a report in October of 2018 that found “failed waterproofing is causing major damage to the concrete slab.  Failure to replace the waterproofing in the near future will cause the extent of the concrete deterioration to expand exponentially.”  The engineer recommended a very expensive but necessary process to correct this.  In the garage, there was evidence of cracking and spalling in the concrete columns, beams and walls —- with exposed rebar.  “Most of the concrete needs to be repaired in a timely fashion.  Clearly, the Board knew about structural defects that needed repair.  The question is, did those necessary repairs go unanswered and if so, was that the cause of this tragedy.  I am not blaming anyone for anything.  However, the lawyer in me tells me that buildings don’t just simply fall down without any warning signs whatsoever.  .  But here is what I want to know and see:

  1. Has the City or County previously notified the condominium about any structural defects? If so when and how?
  2. Has any contractor or engineer notified the condominium about any structural defects? If so, when and how?
  3. Has any engineer or contractor inspected the property or performed repairs on the property that could have caused damage that led to this disaster?
  4. Has any unit owner or the association made any material alterations to the property by removing any structural walls?
  5. Was the Board ever made aware that the structure of the building needed repair? If so, when and how?
  6. Was the board aware that balconies were spalling and rebar was rusting? If so, what did they know and when did they know it?
  7. Has the insurance carrier performed any inspections of the property and if so, when and what were the results?
  8. Has the County required a 40 year certification regarding the structural and electrical components of the building? If so, what were the results?
  9. Was a reserve study performed on the condominium? When? What were the results?
  10. What bid packages were sent to contractors? When were bids received?
  11. What follow-up was done by the association with the engineer of the 2018 report?
  12. What was discussed at Board meetings regarding the need for repairs to the structure?
  13. Were any owners complaining about damage in their unit or parking spots?

The results of reviewing these documents are crucial for several reasons and may lead to a need to review additional documentation.

In addition to their unit, many people at Champlain Towers South lost every piece of personal property they owned.  They lost all of their furniture, appliances, electronics, clothing, jewelry etc… If they did not have an HO-6 insurance policy, the only way they can get reimbursed for their loss is by proving negligence against the association.  The above documents will be crucial in knowing whether or not there was or was not negligence here. If there was, owners can sue the association for damages .  If there wasn’t, the owners suffered a total loss without a chance for recovering damages for their personal property.  And by the way…….just because the building exploded and people died does not relieve any of these owners from having to continue to pay their mortgages while now having to find a new home.  It is a tragedy on many levels.

As many of you know, in both Miami-Dade and Broward County, condominiums are required to undergo a 40 certification process whereby an engineer must attest that the building is structurally safe and electrically safe.  If you can believe it, it appears that the Carlisle was in its 40th year.  Apparently, there was a demand for certification by the county.

It would not surprise me if we see a change going forward, reducing the 40 year certification to 30 years or even less.  I think engineers are about to be busy.  I don’t think anyone in condominium buildings will ever turn a blind eye to cracks in the concrete that is so often done.

I pray for the families that have suffered a loss and/or still don’t know for sure if a loved one is among the rubble.  I also pray that the Boards of Directors of every condominium understand the immense power they have to potentially save lives by making sure the property is always safe and sound.  Too many times you hear about not being able to afford necessary repairs.  Too many times the can is kicked down the road.  The reserves are waived for the umpteenth year again and again and again.  I’m not saying that this definitely happened here at the Champlain Towers.  I am saying what I said at the top:  buildings just don’t fall down.  But every board everywhere has the solemn obligation to make sure something like this never happens again.

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