Thursday, May 12 2022

MIAMI — Families of victims of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida, which killed 98 people last year, have reached a $997 million settlement to compensate them for their staggering loss of life .

The settlement, revealed at a court hearing on Wednesday and still awaiting final approval, includes insurance companies, developers of an adjacent building and other defendants in the sprawling civil case. It comes six weeks before the first anniversary of the June 24 tragedy.

“I’m shocked by this result – I think it’s fantastic,” said Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Michael A. Hanzman. “It’s a recovery far beyond what I had expected.”

Before Wednesday’s surprise announcement, the judge had approved a much more modest $83 million settlement to be split among the owners of condominium units for their property losses. No compensation had been determined for the families of the dead, who would now receive the $997 million.

“It’s a lot of money, but it’s never going to bring Jonah’s mother back,” said Neil Handler, whose son was one of the few people rescued alive from the rubble. Jonah Handler’s mother, Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the collapse.

“No one can cope with what I had to do last Sunday on Mother’s Day – it’s not something money will ever replace for him,” Mr Handler said of of her son, who is now 16 and has broken multiple bones in his back. .

The distribution of the money between the relatives of the 98 victims will be determined in the coming weeks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is still investigating what caused the 13-story, 135-unit building to partially collapse in the middle of the night, a review that could take years.

Different compensation for families of victims, who lost loved ones, and survivors, who lost condominium units, led to significant friction between the groups and raw and emotional testimonies at a hearing in March which opposed the two parties.

“We know we didn’t cause this collapse,” unit owner Oren Cytrynbaum said at the time. “A billion dollars, if I was on the other side, wouldn’t bring those loved ones back.”

Funds for the $83 million for unit owners will come from Champlain Towers South insurers and the sale of the land where the building stood at 8777 Collins Ave. The nearly two acres of beachfront property are expected to sell soon, after an auction, for at least $120 million.

As part of their previous settlement, the co-owners were released from any liability for negligence in the maintenance of the building. Under Florida law, they could have been sued up to the value of their shares.

At first, any settlement seemed unlikely. Some families of victims have argued that all money recovered through the lawsuit should go to them, and none to the owners of the unit. Justice Hanzman disagreed, saying unit owners needed to rebuild their lives from scratch after their heavy economic losses. The part of the building that did not collapse was demolished in the days following the tragedy, with unit owners never able to return.

Judge Hanzman approved that $83 million settlement in March, with no guarantees that more money would follow for the families of the victims — and the possibility of a long, protracted trial that could drag on for years, as do many class actions.

The much larger settlement for the families of the victims made public on Wednesday came after the developers of the adjacent luxury building, Eighty Seven Park, and a host of contractors and consultants who had been sued or investigated by lawyers for the victims signed. The plaintiffs had argued that construction work at Eighty Seven Park had damaged Champlain Towers South – a charge that the developers and contractors of Eighty Seven Park have denied.

Lawyers said the settlement for the victims’ families could expand further, up to around $1 billion, if they reach a settlement with a remaining company. Among the companies that agreed to move in are the engineers who had inspected and begun work to fix serious structural flaws in the South Champlain Towers before the collapse.

Companies will not admit to wrongdoing under the settlement. But Judd G. Rosen, one of the attorneys for the families of victims who didn’t own condos, said the settlement numbers “speak for themselves.”

“It’s a step in the right direction to bring them a sense of dignity and responsibility for what happened,” he said of the families of the victims. “A billion dollars is not paid without some sense of responsibility for this loss.”

In total, the total amount recovered for both the families of the victims and the survivors could exceed $1.1 billion.

Justice Hanzman said he wants to finalize the settlement by June 24 and compensate survivors and victims’ families by the fall.

Susana Alvarez, 62, a collapse survivor, said she and other unit owners were given no information about when they would actually receive the money.

“A lot of us need to buy houses; we literally live with relatives,” she said, adding that she just wanted to move on after that horrible day.

“I’m alive, thank God,” she said. “We just want to be at peace.”

Pablo Rodriguez, who lost his mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and his grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, in the collapse, said he had mixed emotions about the settlement.

“I think it’s the best outcome we could hope for given the situation,” Rodriguez said, although “there is really no amount of money that fixes everything.”

Almost a year later, Mr Rodriguez, 41, said the deaths of his loved ones were still unreal and haunting.

“That video of the building falling,” he said, “it still wakes me up at night.”

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