Will anyone face criminal charges over Surfside condo collapse? Here’s what analysts say
SURFSIDE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Elected leaders and government agencies have vowed to uncover what caused Champlain Towers South to suddenly collapse, killing dozens as they slept — and everyone from construction contractors to town building officials to condo board members will be scrutinized for their role.
Lawsuits filed by survivors and relatives of the dead could lead to multimillion-dollar judgments. Professional licenses may be lost, fines levied, people fired.
But can anyone face criminal charges, or even jail time, over the tragedy?
If past cases are any precedent, it would be a tough case to make. Legal experts say building a criminal case for the deaths will be extremely challenging under Florida law, given all the building plans, construction work, maintenance and repair decisions — or lack of decisions — over the last 40-plus years that will be examined in the unprecedented collapse.
“You can go to any condo building in South Florida, and you’re going to find water damage, flaking concrete and deterioration. You’d have to prove that someone knew this was an imminent danger and ignored it,” said prominent South Florida defense lawyer Roy Black. “An inspector would have to have told the H.O.A., ‘Hey this place could fall down, or this column supporting the building is in danger of collapsing.’ Short of that, they’re not going to be able to bring a criminal case.”
Ultimately, the decision will fall to state prosecutors, who likely will rely on findings from a federal team of scientists and forensic engineers about the cause of the collapse, as well as evidence uncovered by Miami-Dade police homicide detectives or other experts analyzing the catastrophe. State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle could eventually file charges directly, or it could fall to Miami-Dade’s grand jury, which can indict people or companies, as it examines broader safety issues raised by the tragedy.
The Miami-Dade police probe resembles, on an even more massive scale, the one into the Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse in March 2018. The bridge, which was under construction, collapsed onto Southwest Eighth Street, killing five people in cars, as well as a construction worker.
Fernández Rundle drew criticism shortly after the collapse for telling TV reporters that charges appeared “improbable at this point.” She later defended herself, telling the Miami Herald she was speaking in general about “the complexity of these cases.” A federal transit safety board would later blame the bridge collapse on a major design error and a lack of oversight.
Still, three years after the tragedy, the state attorney has yet to decide whether anyone involved in the project will face criminal charges. An office spokesman declined to comment on when the bridge investigation might be concluded.
The Surfside probe could last even longer.
The 12-story, 136-unit condo in the beach town of Surfside collapsed in the middle of the night on June 24, killing at least 78 people, leaving dozens more missing and sparking a massive and complicated rescue and recovery effort.
Civil lawsuits are a given in most U.S. structure failures. So far, more than a dozen have been filed in Miami-Dade circuit court. But absent overwhelming evidence, it’s common for prosecutors in these types of cases to conclude that there is not enough for a criminal case.
A person or company in civil court can be found negligent — but the bar is much higher in criminal court. For a criminal manslaughter case, Florida prosecutors would have to prove people involved with the building acted so negligently that it amounted to a “reckless disregard for human life” or had “a grossly careless disregard for the safety and welfare of the public.”
There are more than a few Florida examples, some so egregious that they led to changes in construction standards:
— The building that housed Miami’s Drug Enforcement Administration field office collapsed in 1974, killing seven federal employees. No one was charged criminally. But the tragedy led to the implementation of requirement that requires that buildings in Miami-Dade County be recertified for occupancy every 40 years — the process that Champlain Towers was about to undergo.
— The Harbour Cay Condominium building in Cocoa Beach collapsed during construction, killing 11 workers in 1981. Florida’s Department of Professional Regulation accused the architect and design engineers of negligence — they lost their licenses — but they were not criminally charged. The disaster led Florida lawmakers to pass a law requiring inspection of the construction of condo buildings taller than three stories.
— In the past decade-plus, no major fatal construction accidents have resulted in a criminal prosecutions, including the case of four construction workers killed in a Miami Dade College parking garage collapse in 2012, a fatal crane accident near Downtown Miami that killed two construction workers in 2008 and the concrete-pouring failure that left three workers dead at a Bal Harbour condo project in 2006.
Nationally, in what had long been considered the deadliest building failure in American history, two walkways inside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Mo., collapsed onto a crowded lobby, killing 114 in 1983. Again, no criminal charges were filed, although engineers lost their licenses.
In charging companies, prosecutors aren’t always seeking jail time. The cases, however, can extract financial penalties and send a message to industries about safety standards. And there have been some high-profile prosecutions nationwide arising from high-profile structure failures, and industrial or construction accidents.
In Massachusetts, a contractor was indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges after a woman was killed when a portion of the ceiling of Boston’s “Big Dig” public works project collapsed in 2006. The company was accused of knowingly supplying an insufficient adhesive blamed for the accident.
New York City prosecutors ran Manhattan’s Construction Fraud Task Force, which brought criminal charges in a slew of cases of unsafe practices. The task force garnered multiple manslaughter convictions, such as the case of a construction worker who fell 29 stories to his death because of unsafe practices, and a worker who died when a construction trench collapsed on him despite repeated warnings about the safety of the site.
In North Philadelphia, a contractor was convicted of manslaughter after he ignored safety warnings, leading to the toppling of a thrift store, killing six people.
Like with other construction accidents in which criminal cases are filed, investigators will need to dig to find out whether any safety warnings were ignored, or if anyone knew about substandard construction material or building flaws, said Philadelphia attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, who has represented victims in construction accidents for decades.
“Particularly now, with email and electronic information, there is way more of a trail than there would have been 30 to 40 years ago,” said Mongeluzzi, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the children of Champlain Towers resident Harold Rosenberg, who died in the collapse.
The sheer scale and scope of the Surfside disaster will make the criminal probe unique.
The Miami-Dade police homicide bureau, which most visibly investigates stabbings, shootings and other murders, is also tasked with investigating unnatural deaths to include industrial accidents and plane crashes. As search-and-rescue workers have scoured the massive rubble pile, teams of Miami-Dade homicide detectives have been on scene, helping document each time a body is found, and notify relatives of those identified as having died.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has assigned senior prosecutors to assist. One of them, Laura Adams, is also the lead prosecutor assigned to review the FIU bridge collapse. Another is Chief Assistant State Attorney Stephen Talpins.
Their analysis will eventually rely heavily on what is uncovered by experts from National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is leading the probe into what caused the collapse.
In asking the Miami-Dade grand jury to explore building safety issues arising from the Surfside collapse, Fernández Rundle signaled that a criminal probe wouldn’t be the thrust of this jury’s term “pending the conclusion of the long-term investigation that will yield the cause of the collapse.”
Since the condo collapse, there’s been a stream of clues about the state of the building over the years.
Three years ago, an engineer hired by the condo association reported “major structural damage” because of a lack of proper drainage in the pool deck but gave no indication the building was in imminent danger. Surfside’s then-building officials later told the association the building was in “good shape.”
The building had begun its scheduled 40-year review and roof repairs had started, while the condo association had also been engaged in years of turmoil over repairs, which is not unusual in South Florida communities. “They may have been too slow — but that’s not criminal conduct,” said Black, the defense attorney.
Residents have reported much repair work over the years in the garage and pool deck area, where experts so far believe the collapse originated. A pool contractor reported alarming cracks and standing water in the parking garage two days before the collapse.
Problems likely also go back to the building’s original design and construction. The original architect’s design didn’t allow for proper drainage, the 2018 engineer’s report said. The New York Times reported it appears that construction crews may not have placed enough crucial steel rebar into concrete pillars, which may have weakened the building over time.
The investigation by NIST — which investigated the collapse of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 — may take years to formally finish, although updates to the public may come within months. The direction of the criminal probe will hinge on its findings.
“Without a cause, it makes it difficult to prosecute anyone,” said retired Miami-Dade senior prosecutor Penny Brill. “Then, they have to figure out who was involved in that causation. Was it the architect? The builder? An inspector? There are so many people over so many years that could be involved. It will be challenging to bring a criminal case.”
The former head of Manhattan’s Construction Fraud Task Force, Diana Florence, said criminal investigators would likely focus on more recent developments, such as the roof work, or reports that construction work on a nearby condo often caused Champlain Towers South to shake.
“The fact that rebar may or may not have been placed right — it’s awful, but how could they charge that? How are you realistically going to find the guy who decided to place it there 40 years ago?” Florence said.
Florence, who prosecuted a leading New York City concrete testing company that falsified test results on concrete mixes used in building projects, said that if investigators cast a wide enough net, they may well wind up with other criminal cases aside from the deaths — such as fraud.
“It’s always a Pandora’s box, and with the severity of what happened here, it demands a full-blown investigation,” she said.
Miami-Dade prosecutors have filed criminal charges in industrial disasters before. They charged an aviation company with third-degree felony murder and manslaughter in the 1996 accidental crash of ValuJet 592. The state accused SabreTech, a contracted company, of negligently handling oxygen generators that were placed inside the plane, causing the crash that killed more than 100 people.
The company ended up pleading no contest to a lesser felony in exchange for paying $500,000, which went to help relatives of air disaster victims.
The State Attorney’s Office also charged outdoor sign company Eller Media, along with an electrician, with manslaughter in the electrocution of a 12-year-old boy at one of its bus shelters. Jurors in 2001, however, acquitted Eller and the electrician at trial.
With Surfside, Miami-Dade prosecutors have been quiet on the scope of the criminal probe.
For now, Fernández Rundle has focused on the grand jury, which will issue “recommendations to prevent such a disaster from occurring again, not just in Surfside, and not just in condominiums, but in all buildings and structures in the coastal, intercoastal and surrounding areas of our county, state and nation,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.
Over the decades, Miami-Dade grand juries have issued reports on the financial health of Miami’s public hospital system, the environmental state of Biscayne Bay and the treatment of mentally ill people in county jails, and corrupt practices in building inspections, among many other topics.
In an earlier statement, she said, the grand jury would “not jeopardize any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations.” The current grand jury’s term ends in early November, although the members can ask that it be extended by up to 90 days to be able to finish any reports on a broader issue.
Another possibility: a future grand jury could explore criminal indictments, after a federal probe.
Still, Gary Winston, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who worked on the ValuJet prosecution, said criminal charges will be difficult because of the unprecedented nature of the Surfside collapse — it would be hard to prove people involved in construction, repairs or maintenance could have envisioned that the entire building would have pancaked to the ground.
“Buildings just don’t collapse like this,” Winston said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone would have reacted and not said, everyone get out because it’s going to collapse.”
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