Engineer, law firms agree to settle Surfside condo lawsuit

Fatima Fokina

Two of the major defendants in the lawsuit over the Surfside condominium collapse — an engineering company hired to repair structural problems and a law firm that represented the condo association — have agreed to tentative settlements in the tragedy that left 98 people dead.

Lawyers for the survivors and families of victims in the lawsuit announced the breakthrough at a Wednesday status hearing in the case. Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing the complicated suit against multiple defendants and deciding how to allot compensation for the surviving condo owners and relatives of those who died, applauded the deal though the terms were undisclosed.

“This is great news,” Hanzman said. “Looks like the lawyers did an excellent job. We’ve settled two.”

Morabito Consulting, the Maryland-based engineering company that performed a 2018 structural analysis of Champlain Towers South and was supervising its restoration plan, and Becker, the law firm that represented the condo association, have agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and avoid a trial on accusations of negligence in the June 24 disaster.

Miami attorneys Rachel Furst and Harley Tropin, leaders of the team representing relatives suing for wrongful death, said attorney Stuart Grossman, mediator Bruce Greer and attorneys for the insurers of the two firms played a central role in hammering out the agreement, which still must be reviewed and approved by Hanzman.

“We are pleased that this matter was resolved with both defendants,” Furst and Tropin said in a joint statement. “This is an important step for compensating the victims and we are grateful that it was completed at an early stage.“

Morabito denied that it was liable for the collapse of the 12-story, 136-unit building, saying in a statement its work was “consistent with the highest industry standards.”

“But we also firmly believe that the families who have suffered from this tragedy deserve compensation so that they may focus on healing. We therefore applaud the settlement reached by our insurers to resolve these difficult issues fairly and expeditiously. We fully recognize that the losses suffered can never be fully compensated, but it is our sincere hope that this settlement helps to bring some closure to an incredibly painful chapter for all involved.”

Morabito Consultants produced an inspection report in 2018 in preparation for Champlain South’s 40-year recertification that found “abundant cracking and spalling” in concrete columns and walls, “exposed, deteriorating rebar” and failing waterproofing of the pool deck that was causing “major structural damage.”

While Morabito did not warn that the building was unsafe, it urged the condo association to make repairs in a “timely fashion” because the concrete problems could “expand exponentially.” The $9 million estimated cost of repairs caused dissension among board members and owners and rose to $15 million as the association delayed repairs, which had commenced just before the partial collapse of the building.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, the company defended its work: “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,” a spokesman said.

Morabito’s insurers initially refused to provide potentially tens of millions of dollars in coverage and sued Morabito, arguing the deaths and property losses were caused by Morabito’s “negligence.” In response, Morabito sued its insurance companies, claiming it did provide proper professional services.

Becker, formerly known as Becker and Poliakoff, has been the leading force in influencing Florida’s condo living regulations since the building boom years. Becker represented the Champlain Towers South condo association for three decades.

In the lawsuit, victims accused the firm of “callous, reckless, and conscious disregard” for the safety of residents and claimed that Becker “had knowledge of complaints from residents regarding the building’s condition for years before the collapse.”

The Fort Lauderdale-based law firm, which helped write much of Florida’s condo legislation empowering associations, “had a responsibility and duty to warn about the imminent nature of the damage and the extreme risk to the residents and occupants of CTS posed by the structural damage” discovered by Morabito, but failed to take action, according to the lawsuit.

“Our deepest sympathy goes out to those affected by the tragic collapse of Champlain Towers South,” the firm said in a statement. “Becker mourns those who have been lost, many of whom were friends. We are pleased that this matter is coming to a close and that our insurance carriers decided to resolve the case in a manner that we hope will help bring closure to the victims and their families of this terrible tragedy. We are in the process of finalizing the settlement details, which is expected to take several weeks.”

Last week, surviving Champlain South owners were offered an $83 million settlement to compensate them for their losses. Several told the Miami Herald they were angry with an offer they considered far too low. The settlements with Morabito and Becker may or may not affect that amount as Hanzman weighs the details of the agreements. It was not immediately clear if the amount of the two settlements announced Wednesday would eventually be made public in the contentious negotiations.

This story was originally published February 23, 2022 7:14 PM.

Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.

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