Despite the uplifting news of a nearly $1 billion settlement in the Surfside condo collapse case, the ordeal of divvying up that massive sum isn’t over. And the process looms as difficult and potentially heartbreaking for some relatives of the 98 people who died in the tragedy last summer.
Still suffering from the wrenching personal loss, families will now have to file claims for loved ones that spell out age, occupation and earnings, among other economic factors, so that a pair of administrators and a judge can put an exact value on each lost life. Some, under an approach that is standard in loss of life settlements, will invariably be “worth” more than others.
“It’s going to be extremely painful — I’m tearing up as I speak,” said lawyer Pablo Rodriguez, 41, whose 64-year-old mother Elena Blasser and 88-year-old grandmother Elenea Chavez were staying in the family’s 11th floor condo at Champlain Towers South when it collapsed in the middle of the night.
“I’m already preparing myself not to take it too personally,” Rodriguez told the Miami Herald on Friday. “Everyone assumes the $1 billion settlement will be spread out across the board evenly, but it doesn’t work that way.”
While the Champlain Towers South lawsuit has been fashioned as a class action, it is really akin to a what lawyers call a mass tort case, which involve acts or errors that lead to multiple deaths or injuries. For victims seeking damages, there are two parts to the equation: pain and suffering and economic loss.
The process will likely find that all of the people who died in the condo building’s collapse suffered the same pain and suffering.
But each victim did not incur the same economic loss, which is based on earning capacity over a remaining expected lifetime. So, a doctor is going to be compensated higher than someone who worked as a schoolteacher or is elderly and retired. But, as in many similar cases, the final individual distributions of funds will likely remain confidential, legal observers say.
The task at Champlain Towers South will be daunting. The victims ranged in age from a 1-year-old girl, Aishani Patel, who perished along with her parents Vishal and Bhavna Patel, to 92-year-old retiree Hilda Noriega. The victims worked in medicine, real estate, banking, fashion and many other businesses and industries. Some were students, some newlyweds, many were retirees.
Prominent South Florida attorney Stuart Grossman, whose law firm has taken a lead in the Champlain case, said calculating the value of each deceased person’s life in a building collapse is not unlike the same undertaking in a plane crash.
“All of these people have one thing in common — they’re all innocents,” Grossman told the Herald. “But individually, they are all very different. It’s a cornucopia of victims and each one will have different claims.”
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who has been presiding over the Champlain class-action case since the 12-story oceanfront building’s collapse on June 24, has already laid the groundwork for dividing up the vast sum of money from the settlement.
The judge appointed two claims administrators tasked with assessing each life’s worth. The administrators, veteran lawyer Robert Parks and retired Circuit Judge John Thornton, will review the claims filed by the victims and their attorneys — a process that will take months. Then, the “evaluators,” as the administrators are known, will recommend specific payouts for the relatives of residents who died. Hanzman will have final say in the matter.
“My feeling is, we’re very pleased with the settlement and the amount of money we were able to collect,” said attorney Rachel Furst, who has collaborated with dozens of lawyers on the class-action Champlain case. “But we also know there’s a lot of work to be done and the claims process will take months to play out and that it will be very emotional for the victims.”
Property losses already settled
The challenge of determining the value of each life will be extremely sensitive compared with the process of resolving the property claims of all 136 Champlain condo owners. Under that scenario, Hanzman, the judge, ordered an independent appraiser to estimate a value for the entire building along with each unit, based on a floor-by-floor analysis, the size of the units, and other factors, such as ocean views. The judge also appointed a mediator, longtime lawyer Bruce Greer, to help the condo owners and their lawyers come to a meeting of the minds. Greer volunteered his services for free.
In the end, all 136 property owners agreed to accept the $83 million settlement approved by the judge in March, even though dozens expressed disappointment over the values assigned to their units. Many were outraged and thought they were short-changed. They accepted the terms only because, as part of the deal, they were spared the possibility of being sued as members of the Champlain condo association by relatives who lost family members in the collapse.
The money for that property settlement will come from the condo association’s insurers, who already turned over $50 million to the court-appointed receiver, Michael Goldberg. The other $33 million of that settlement will be derived from the expected sale of the nearly two-acre Champlain property for at least $120 million. An auction of the Collins Avenue property is set for this month, but a Dubai developer has already committed to buying the land for that minimum price.
Although the condo owners have already signed off on the $83 million settlement, they might receive more money in light of the staggering settlement of the class-action negligence case announced this past week.
The $997 million settlement, which is still preliminary, resulted from more than 20 defendants agreeing to pay up. Most were sued in the Champlain class-action case; others reached out-of-court deals.
Plaintiffs in the class action settled with a variety of entities, including the insurers of the security company for Champlain South, the developers of the condominium next door on Collins Avenue, engineers, architects, and a law firm that represented the Champlain South condo association.
They include 8701 Collins Development, Terra Group, Terra World Investments, John Moriarty and Associates of Florida, NV5, DeSimone Consulting Engineers, Stantec Architecture, Morabito Consultants and the law firm Becker.
The Herald has learned an approximate breakdown of the $997 million. Various parties associated with the Eighty Seven Park condo adjacent to Champlain South settled for about $400 million. Legal and engineering contractors associated with the Champlain South condo association account for about $50 million. The town of Surfside is settling for $2 million. Securitas USA, the security company that provided guard services, managed visitor access and operated safety systems at Champlain South, settled for the largest amount, in the neighborhood of $500 million.
Other plaintiffs expected to settle
Other parties are expected to settle with the class-action plaintiffs by next week, when Hanzman, the judge, is scheduled to approve the preliminary deal. In late June, after a comment period by all parties, he is expected to give his final approval.
Throughout the litigation, Hanzman has gained a reputation for moving the Champlain class-action case as fast as possible, pressuring lawyers for plaintiffs. But even he was taken aback by last week’s announcement of the settlement. “The result achieved and the speed is beyond extraordinary,” he said during a court hearing Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the process of deciding how to divide the money has already begun with the appointment of the claims administrator and the issuance of claims forms.
The settlement will also cover legal fees of dozens of lawyers who filed suits in the case. Exactly how much that total tab will be isn’t yet clear, but it’s going to be a sizable chunk.
Initially, they promised to work pro bono, or for free, on behalf of the Champlain victims. Now, they plan to seek tens of millions in legal fees for their work — possibly up to $100 million. The judge has allowed them to file a claim for their hourly work over the past year. But Hanzman already ruled they cannot receive contingency fees, which typically run as high as 30 percent to 40 percent of a settlement.
Some relatives of family members who died in the Champlain building collapse said they were impressed with the quickness and amount of the settlement attained by the class-action lawyers — litigation that typically takes years to resolve.
“I am pleasantly surprised,” said Rodriguez, who lost his mother and grandmother in the tragedy.
Rachel Spiegel said she and other family members are still mourning the loss of her mother, 65-year-old Judy Spiegel, who died in the collapse, and have not thought too much about the big settlement. She said her family plans to follow the advice of their attorneys on filing a claim for the mother’s death.
“Whatever the next steps are, we’ll handle it as a family,” she said. “But we’re still very much focused on my mom, focused on our grief journey. Whatever the lawyers say is the next step, we’ll follow.”
A few others, however, seemed less than thrilled by the outcome, suggesting that no life has a price tag.
“No amount of money will ever compensate for what occurred on June 24,” said Martin Langesfeld. “My beautiful sister Nicky was horrifically killed in her own home with her husband [Luis] and dog. Their safest place.”
Langesfeld said he was more upset over the state Legislature’s failure to address condominium safety requirements during its recent session in Tallahassee.
“We could not let a number cover the fact that this could happen again and millions of lives are in potential danger,” he said. “Legislative change must be made now; it is already 98 lives too late.”
Miami Herald staff writers Linda Robertson and Martin Vassolo contributed to this story.