MIAMI (REUTERS) - The collapse of a condominium tower near Miami will set off years of litigation as victims and their families look to find fault among the building's management as well as engineers, architects and others, according to legal experts.
Disaster struck in Surfside, Florida, on June 24 as a major repair project was beginning, although the cause of one of the worst residential construction failures in the United States is likely to have many contributing factors stretching back years.
"Whether it be architects, engineers or contractors that had any involvement in this building, we'll be looking at everybody to hold each party responsible for their negligence," said Mr Daniel Wagner, a real-estate lawyer in south Florida, who declined to say if he was representing anyone involved in the collapse.
But it will be a process complicated by finger-pointing and a trend in recent years in Florida law that has made it increasingly difficult to hold parties accountable for construction defects, lawyers said.
Liability in complex disasters often gets parcelled out among defendants, with a certain percentage being apportioned to each, legal experts said.
"It's my professional opinion that everyone is going to blame everybody else," Mr Wagner said.
The death toll on Monday climbed to 28, and 117 were unaccounted for.
Less than 24 hours after the collapse, the first of at least three lawsuits was filed against Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, run by a volunteer board comprised of owners, for failing to ensure the building's safety.
Mr Bob McKee, a lawyer who brought a case on behalf of Mr Steven Rosenthal, a resident who survived the collapse, said until another cause can be identified, the presumption is failed maintenance was to blame.
The condo association president warned residents in an April letter that the situation had become "significantly worse" since "major structural damage" was identified in a 2018 inspection. The president urged them to support a US$15 million (S$20 million in today's rates) assessment for repairs while acknowledging the work "could have been done or planned for in years gone by".
Mr McKee said plaintiffs will identify other potentially liable parties through the discovery process.
One lawsuit by the family of missing resident Harold Rosenberg also named as defendants Morabito Consultants and SD Architects for failing to warn residents of the danger of collapse.
The lawsuit blamed the Morabito engineering firm, which conducted the 2018 inspection, for allegedly failing to warn the condo association of the need to evacuate the building. The firm was retained again in 2020 and did not warn residents the damage it uncovered two years earlier had not been repaired, the lawsuit said.
Morabito said in a statement that it provided its 2018 report and recommendations to the condo association.
Morgan & Morgan attorney Rene Rocha, who is working on the Rosenberg case, said informing the board may not have been enough.
"They could have walked away from the job if they told the board it would be unsafe to proceed this way," said Mr Rocha. "Obviously, it didn't happen that way."
The Rosenberg lawsuit also said it planned to sue Surfside for allegedly failing to hire an independent expert to inspect the building after receiving the 2018 Morabito report.
The condo association declined to comment on the lawsuit, SD Architects could not be reached, and the town did not respond.
Legal experts said the defendants will likely argue there was no evidence that the building was at immediate risk of collapse.
A Florida judge appointed attorney Michael Goldberg of the Akerman law firm last Friday as a receiver for the condo association, which disclosed last Thursday it had US$30 million in property insurance and US$18 million for liability.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said the insurance "will obviously be inadequate to compensate everyone fully."
Residents and their families may have to contend with Florida laws and court rulings that have made it more difficult to hold parties accountable for defects in professional design, construction or code compliance, according to Mr Barry Ansbacher, a Florida attorney who specialises in condo and construction law.
For example, a 2006 law shortened to 10 years from 15 years the window for plaintiffs to sue for certain defects in design and construction and the potential personal liability for architects and engineers has also been narrowed, Mr Ansbacher said.
Court rulings have also limited liability, including a 1985 decision that sovereign immunity protects local government building inspectors.
"Often, by the time something is discovered that was not done properly, the clock has run out and there is no liability,"Mr Ansbacher said.
There is also the possibility of criminal charges.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would have a grand jury examine the collapse, although she did not say whether she would consider charges.
Florida grand juries can also make recommendations on matters of public policy.
One Florida prosecutor said the most likely charge if someone's actions led to the collapse would be the crime of manslaughter by culpable negligence.
"To have a crime here you need more than what is presently being reported," said Mr Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County. "You have to have someone who knew that destruction was imminent and did nothing about it."