Just hours after a Surfside condo building collapsed and buried 98 people last summer, the first of many lawsuits that would turn into one of the biggest class-action cases in Florida was filed.
On Friday, less than a month before the one-year anniversary of the Champlain Towers South tragedy, a team of lawyers representing family members of the deceased submitted a settlement agreement totaling $1,021,199,000 to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who gave his preliminary approval on Saturday at a court hearing following around-the-clock negotiations.
“It’s a great result,” Hanzman said Saturday during the hearing with attorneys on both sides of the massive legal dispute. “This agreement appears to be a very reasonable compromise of the claims.”
While the estimated amount was reported earlier this month, the final class-action settlement deal provides definitive details of how much each of the defendants has agreed to pay to resolve wrongful-death and personal-injury claims by the victims’ relatives. They all admitted no responsibility and made most of their individual payments through insurance coverage.
“As this Court has noted, the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24, 2021 in Surfside was a ‘black swan’ event that devastated this community,” the class-action plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in their 213-page settlement filing.
“The death and destruction caused by the collapse resulted in incalculable damage to so many individuals,” the lawyers wrote. “Remarkably, after months of rigorous, arm’s-length negotiations ... more than two dozen potentially liable parties have agreed to an unprecedented settlement for an unprecedented event.”
The developers of a nearby condo building, an engineering consultant to the Champlain Towers South, and Becker & Poliakoff, a law firm that represents many condo associations, were among the defendants.
The company paying the biggest portion of the settlement — $517.5 million — is Securitas Security Services USA. The firm’s employees were contracted to provide guard services, monitor visitors in the lobby and operate the building’s security system on an emergency basis, including the all-call alarm panel at the front desk to alert residents.
In a prior news release, Securitas USA admitted no wrongdoing or responsibility for the building’s collapse or the loss of lives, and noted that it did not install or maintain the building’s alarm system. Securitas, owned by a major Swedish company, declined to comment beyond the original statement, which stated: “The legal and insurance claims environment surrounding this matter compelled Securitas USA’s insurers’ participation in the settlement.”
The night of the collapse
Early on the morning of June 24, the Collins Avenue property’s pool deck fell into the underground garage seven minutes before the mid- and ocean-front sections of the building tumbled down, killing 98 people and injuring others. After the deck caved and before the building’s collapse, Securitas’ security guard called 911 twice from the lobby at 1:16 and 1:17 a.m. and attempted to call residents individually on their phones.
But many residents have told the Miami Herald that no general security alert was sent out or all-call alarm sounded before the collapse.
“Seven minutes — can you imagine how many people could have gotten out?” said Raysa Rodriguez, one of the surviving owners from the section of the building that did not collapse, listing the names of her friends who died. “Seven minutes is a long time.”
Rodriguez, who lived in unit 907 for 18 years, called her brother from her hallway as she frantically knocked on neighbors’ doors and helped them down the stairs, and the call was recorded on his voicemail.
“You listen to my audio and there are no emergency alarms or evacuation announcements sounding,” she said, adding that intercom speakers had been installed in the building’s bedrooms within the last year and a half, and had been tested successfully on June 8, two weeks prior to the collapse. “We heard nothing. It’s silence except for car alarms going off. No alarm was pulled by security.”
Joseph Blasser’s wife, Elena Blasser, 64, and mother-in-law, Elena Chavez, 88, died in the collapse. They were in unit 1211. He was visiting an ill cousin in Panama. There were intercoms in both bedrooms, he said.
“They were supposed to announce loudly, ‘Leave the building, leave the building,’ and I am certain had they been activated my wife would have been able to get out with her mother in time,” Blasser said. “I don’t like to think about what happened. My wife was everything to me, my best friend, my world. I lost my life entirely that night.”
The plaintiffs in the Champlain South class action settled with a variety of entities, including the developers of the luxury high-rise condominium built next door at 8701 Collins Ave. and the project’s engineers, architects and related parties. Those companies accounted for another big chunk of the settlement totaling about $400 million, paid mostly by their insurers. Collectively, they were accused of causing damage during the construction of Eighty Seven Park to neighboring Champlain South’s property.
Here is a breakdown of some of the Eighty Seven Park entities’ settlement payments:
8701 Collins Development, $28 million
8701 Collins Avenue Condo Association, $29 million
Bizzi & Partners Development, $16 million
John Moriarty and Associates of Florida, $157 million
NV5, $25.7 million
DeSimone Consulting Engineers, $8.5 million
Stantec Architecture, $25 million
Geosonics, $5 million
Florida Civil, $6.9 million.
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.
Also, 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, the judge, is expected to give final approval to the class-action settlement later this summer, after a comment period and “fairness hearing” on June 23. Hanzman also plans to participate in a series of claims hearings in which relatives and representatives of victims who died or were injured in Champlain South’s collapse will be able to make a case for what their lives were worth — a process that is expected to be both arduous and emotional.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, Hanzman agreed to increase the prior $83 million property settlement for the 136 Champlain condo owners to $96 million after dozens complained about the previous deal, especially after the estimated $1 billion agreement in the wrongful-death class action was reported earlier this month. The owners expressed surprise over that enormous settlement and told the judge that they deserved more money for their unit losses, saying they still felt the original settlement undervalued their condos. An independent appraiser had determined the total value of the condo units before the structure’s collapse would be $96 million.
The money for the revised property settlement will come from the Champlain South condo association’s $50 million insurance coverage and the rest from part of the sale of the condo building for $120 million to a Dubai development company. Its initial bid was accepted by Hanzman this week after no other companies offered competing bids to buy the nearly two-acre beachfront property. The Middle East developer plans to build a luxury condo high-rise.
The speed with which the final class-action settlement was reached impressed not only Hanzman, but also the family members of people who died in the tragedy. Many of the plaintiffs’ lawyers praised the court-appointed mediator, Bruce Greer, a lawyer who volunteered his time to bring the sides together in both the property and wrongful-death settlements, as well as the Champlain South condo association’s receiver, lawyer Michael Goldberg.
“We are pleased to have finalized the settlements we reached with more than two dozen parties and their insurers,” the class-action team’s co-chairs Harley Tropin and Rachel Furst said in a statement.
“We are grateful to Judge Hanzman, who fast-tracked this case to get it resolved in record time,” they said. “We also recognize the efforts of the receiver Michael Goldberg and the mediator Bruce Greer and all of the members of the plaintiffs steering committee who worked tirelessly on this matter.”
The Champlain class’ $1 billion wrongful-death settlement is surpassed in Florida’s legal history by only one other class-action case: In 1997, Big Tobacco’s major companies, Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., reached a staggering settlement with some 40 states for their cost of treating sick smokers. Florida’s share: $11.3 billion.