Litigation Already Mounting Over Surfside Condo Collapse, While Attorneys Push For Drone Access

Though just one week has passed since the Surfside building collapse tragedy, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc. is already a defendant in four lawsuits filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

As of Thursday afternoon, 18 people were confirmed dead and 145 were still unaccounted for.

Morgan & Morgan attorneys Yechezkel Rodal, Andres Hermida and Rene F. Rocha in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New Orleans partnered with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky attorneys Robert Mongeluzzi and Jeffrey Goodman in Philadelphia to file a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of the children of Harold Rosenberg, a missing Champlain Towers South resident.

Saltz Mongeluzzi spearheaded litigation over the collapse of a Salvation Army building in Philadelphia, which resulted in a record-breaking $227 million settlement.

The attorneys have requested that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman allow a drone to document the site of the collapse. The building has $30 million in property coverage and $18 in liability coverage, attorneys told Hanzman in a hearing Thursday.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, the attorneys said it’s crucial to get a visual record of the site to collect evidence. It’s unclear how long the search and rescue process will take, and despite Federal Aviation Administration drone restrictions, the legal teams are hoping to get the go-ahead.

“Obviously, in a way that wouldn’t interfere with any ongoing rescue operations, so that’s already in place and delineated at the time that those are completed,” Rocha said.

The drone is equipped with a camera and able to be operated unmanned for 24 hours.

Two days earlier, Adam Moskowitz of The Moskowitz Law Firm in Coral Gables, filed a class-action lawsuit for Raysa Rodriguez in the same court, following similar legal claims. Rodriguez is also a resident of the collapsed building and narrowly escaped.

The condo association said it’s doing all it can to assist with recovery efforts.

“While we cannot comment on pending litigation, our focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time,” a Champlain Towers South Condominium Association spokesperson said in a written statement. “We continue to work with city, state and local officials in their search and recovery efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy. Our profound thanks go out to all of the emergency rescue personnel — professionals and volunteers alike — for their tireless efforts.”

Are condo boards failing?

Both plaintiffs claimed in their lawsuits that the condo association failed to stand by its governing documents in maintaining proper upkeep of the structure. And it’s an allegation that lawyers say goes beyond the tragedy at the 12-story Champlain Towers.

Ronald P. Weil, a partner at Weil Snyder & Ravindran in Miami, pointed to a cautionary tale at his client’s penthouse in a high-rise condo on South Beach called the Yacht Club at Portofino.

“That entire floor, and particularly his unit, have been the subject of roof and window leaks penetrating the buildings,” Weil said. “What happened at Surfside, the real story here about what these condos are all about, is they are not doing what they should be doing to protect the buildings.”

Marc Halpern, a partner at Halpern Rodriguez in Miami representing the Yacht Club, did not respond to a request for comment.

Weil said his client’s $6 million in renovations have stalled for over a decade and he has not been able to live in his unit for the last five years. Weil said the condo board is obligated to perform the renovations, primarily since multiple engineering firms have issued reports documenting the damage at his client’s penthouse.

“Condo boards are not doing what they need to do to take care of the buildings,” Weil said. “The reasons are out-of-state, disinterested people on the boards and money they otherwise want to avoid spending.”

Ambiguous language on reports?

Steve Daniels, a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr in West Palm Beach, has represented associations for homeowners and condos, and said issues around putting off work due to high costs are more complicated than they might appear.

For one, many engineering reports often are ambiguous about the timeliness of taking action on repairs, using language, such as, “You can be facing major structural failure,” while also adding in the same report a few sentences later, “Nothing is going to happen imminently,” Daniels said.

And a second problem: the cost of repairs can be a source of conflict among condo associations and residents, who have conflicting philosophies. Daniels said many residents don’t want to shell out thousands of dollars to fund repair and maintenance projects that can chip away at potential profits if they sell their condominiums in the future. At Champlain Towers South, condo owners were to begin making payments for more than $9 million in building repairs on June 30.

“There are people who say, ‘Look, we need to do this. Everyone has to pay thousands of dollars per unit,’” Daniels said. “That’s versus those who say, ‘No, it’s not needed right now.’ “

But Daniels said there is always the option of an association taking out a loan to remedy any emergency issue.

David Winker, a solo practitioner in Miami who owns a condominium in South Beach at Celestial Waters, balked at the idea of $1 million in renovations split between five homeowners in his three-story building built in the 1930s.

My wife was on the board at the time and I explained to her, ‘If this is the case, we are going to turn the keys to the bank. The condo is not worth that kind of money. If our share is $200,000, we’re better off buying a new condo.

But because the building was having trouble with falling concrete and other related issues, Winker said the Celestial Waters residents gave their money to a construction company that was not as reputable and bid significantly less.

“I think back to the work, and who knows if what they did was good enough?” Winker said.

Search and rescue crews suspended their mission early Thursday as the remaining part of the condominium continues to shift, leaving officials concerned the other half of the building could come down. The search for survivors will resume when it is safe to do so.

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