Condo Collapse Exposes Weakness in Building Inspections, Experts Say
By Brian Bandell | July 12, 2021
There were concerns that insurance policies on Champlain Towers South may not add up to enough coverage for the victims of the building’s deadly partial collapse as a court-appointed receiver took over the condo association Friday.
Max Marcucci, a spokesman for the association, confirmed that it has $48 million in total insurance coverage, including $30 million for property and $18 million in general liability.
If that is all that’s available, there would be less than $1 million in liability insurance payments available for the families of each of the 20 people confirmed dead as of this writing. An additional 128 people are still unaccounted for.
Five unit owners have filed lawsuits against the association since the condo building’s June 24 partial collapse.
One of the association’s insurance carriers, Richmond, Virginia-based James River Insurance Co., submitted a letter in those cases, saying it would voluntarily reserve the entire $2 million of its commercial general liability policy to each valid claim.
The property insurance company for the Champlain Towers South may need more time to examine the cause of the collapse and whether it falls under the policy before making a decision on coverage, said Kelly Corcoran, an insurance coverage attorney at Ball Janik in Miami.
Attorney Wayne Pathman, co-managing partner of Miami-based Pathman Schermer Tandy, LLP, said the condo association may not have enough assets and insurance coverage to fully satisfy the claims, both for loss of life and property, that resulted from the collapse. Plaintiffs are likely to go after private parties involved in the building, he said.
One unit owner’s lawsuit names, along with the association, Baltimore-based Morabito Consultants and SD Architects in Fort Lauderdale. Both firms were hired to recommend repairs for the building. The lawsuit, filed by the family of Harold Rosenberg, who is missing in the collapse, says the town of Surfside may be added as defendant in the future because it alleges that officials didn’t inform residents of the dangers of the building. The lawsuit also accused the condo association of failing to make necessary repairs to the building because of a “desire to save money.”
A 2018 report by Morabito Consultants to the condo association found “major structural damage” in the building and recommended repairs, but those repairs weren’t completed.
“Morabito Consultants provided the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association with detailed findings and recommendations nearly three years ago regarding the structural repairs that were needed on the building to ensure the safety of the residents and the public,” company spokesperson Brett Marcy said. “Morabito Consultants did their job, just as they have done for nearly four decades – providing expert structural engineering counsel and services. And they will continue to work with the investigating authorities to understand why this structure failed, so that such a catastrophic event can never happen again.”
Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman named Michael I. Goldberg receiver for the condo association Friday, and Paul S. Singerman, co-chair of Miami-based Berger Singerman, will represent Goldberg. It will be up to the receiver and the courts to decide how the proceeds of the insurance policies are distributed to condo owners and their families.
Many of the units were likely covered by owners’ individual insurance policies, as well.
In the aftermath of the collapse, Pathman expects the 40-year recertification process to be overhauled. Champlain Towers South had recently started the process, but structural damage was apparent in the building years earlier. Pathman said the timeline for recertification should be earlier and building inspections need to be more comprehensive, looking below the surface with advanced imaging equipment and considering the impact of sea level rise on older buildings.
“In lots of buildings, you could take similar pictures of concrete spalling and rebar showing and concrete cracking,” he said.