Champlain Towers and Building Collapse Cases
The Champlain Towers condos located in Surfside, Florida collapsed on June 23, 2021, resulting in 97 deaths, as of July 18. A building collapse can happen to almost any structure, deck, balcony, or even parking lot of any size. They require experienced legal assistance to navigate the possibility of a property owner’s negligence and damages. Attorney Rod Dixon describes a deck collapse case where a poorly build deck resulted in the wrongful death of a mother of three and a $5 million verdict.
After a large-scale building collapse accident loved ones will have a lot of questions. Why did it happen? How could it have been avoided? The tragedy of the Champlain Towers in Florida is just one example of how little time it takes for a structural collapse to affect so many people at one time.
Our hearts are with those who lost loved ones due to this tragedy. We always have Georgia’s back if you have legal questions regarding a building collapse case, and offer free legal consultation for personal injury representation.
Building Collapse Evidence
Could the demolition or the storm affect the evidence as to why the building collapsed?
Yes, it absolutely could impact the evidence. One of the things that are important in the context of cases we work up is getting the evidence quickly. Things like when rain can impact the evidence. The evidence can be impacted by people manipulating it, sometimes in a good way, like trying to find the victims. At other times, people can sometimes just go out and disrupt the evidence, intentionally or unintentionally.
The storms, the rain, and the rescue workers will have an impact on the evidence. But one of the things that’s critical to understand in the realm of personal injury law, is that our burden of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt, or absolute 100% certainty. We just have to prove what probably happened–what likely happened. Although some of the evidence might not be in the best form, there still should be sufficient evidence to show what probably happened. Or what likely caused the collapse, even with the wind and rain and elements that are enforced down there.
Evidence of Danger
Was evidence that shows this collapse was possibly imminent?
Absolutely. In the background, regarding a lot of buildings: office buildings, condos, buildings, is a requirement, or are requirements for periodic review and evaluation of the structures. So with this particular tower down in Florida, it was erected I believe, in the 70s, but was under local and state law to be recertified every four years, with periodic inspections throughout that time. And so these inspections would go, the inspector engineer would go look at the structure from the ground up to determine whether there were things that needed to be repaired and recertified, and so that process had already begun for this building at the time of the collapse, they just had not had an opportunity to actually perform the needed repairs.
The collapse down in Florida has already impacted the review of buildings, not just in Florida, but nationwide. And so if you’re watching the news, you’ll see that there was another condo just north of where this collapse occurred, where they evacuated the residents because they thought that the building was not structurally sound. There are evaluations going on in buildings all across the country right now that are older buildings, particularly those that are on the coast, where saltwater and seawater can really have a negative impact on the structural integrity of buildings. And so we are going to see that increasingly.
It’s a shame but what usually happens is that a disaster has to occur before people start to act on things in the way that they should. And so this disaster occurred now it is heightened everyone’s awareness of potential problems, and folks are acting on that awareness now.
Legal Responsibility of Avoiding Building Collapse
Really, buildings don’t collapse every day. That is a rare event. Thankfully, we live in a country where there have been standards in place over the years to help ensure that buildings don’t collapse. The much more frequent collapses are the deck collapses, the floor collapses, and those tend to happen more in residential establishments than they do in commercial establishments, although they do happen at commercial establishments.
So if you’re a business or property owner, whether it’s a tall office building, or a two-bedroom, rental house, there are certain things you can do. But what you’re obligated to do kind of depends on who’s there. For example, if you have a tenant, then your obligation is to notify the tenant about dangers that exist. But you’re also obligated to search for dangers, search for potential dangers, because you are responsible for things you don’t know, and things that you could know if you took the reasonable steps to get to know those things.
And then there’s a certain category of folks who, let’s say, you are going to visit your friend who lives in an apartment complex. Well, that apartment complex may not have the same responsibility to your friend who is not actually providing a benefit to that apartment complex as that apartment complex might have you. The law can be a little vague, depending on where you are on that subject. But in certain circumstances, that apartment complex would have the obligation to let your friend, the tenant know about things dangerous, it’s aware of or could be aware of.
Whereas with you, the visitor, the apartment complex is only obligated to let you know about things it actually knows are dangerous, in other words, is not under an obligation to find out things that it is not aware of. So the obligation of the landlord can vary in this, depending on the situation.
But I think the reasonable landlord, in all situations, is evaluating its property on a regular basis, at least yearly, at least a yearly visual inspection. You can hire someone who is an engineer or code inspector to just go around and look and see if there are dangers that are open and obvious that could be addressed. And if that were to happen, a large percentage of these collapses that are occurring, whether they’re decks or railings or floors, will be detected.
But then there’s also the obligation to actually act on that knowledge and fix those problems. That’s where a lot of these problems occur, because the landlords may know about the problems, but they don’t want to spend the money to fix. And they don’t want to tell your visitors or the residents or the customers about these problems. Because if the customers know that the deck is wobbly, guess what? The customers aren’t gonna want to go there. And so the business will not make the money. And so there’s an incentive for them to stay quiet. They hope that nothing happens, and usually nothing does. But when it does, it can be catastrophic.
Deck Collapse Attorneys
Let’s talk about decks and talk about wood decks as an example. There are some dangers that can be visible, and some dangers that can be hidden. With hidden dangers, it’s possible no one will ever know about them until someone falls through the floor. For example, if the flooring is rotting on the inside, you won’t necessarily know that from the outside. Then you step and the board breaks and you fall through. That’s a problem. Now, by the way, nobody’s going to be liable or responsible for that, because it’s a hidden danger, right? You can’t hold somebody responsible for something they didn’t know, or something they could not have known about with reasonable efforts.
On the other hand, they’re things that might be open and obvious. For example, if you go and there’s a deck and you say to yourself, there are too many people on it. We all have that thought that intuition. If you have that thought, you’re probably right. Don’t go on the deck. Or if you own the deck, and any part of it, the stairs, or railing is wobbling, there’s a problem. Get off it.
You can also at times, you can’t see rot, wooden decks, but sometimes you can’t. If you see that, you should be aware that there’s a potential problem. Maybe you don’t want to spend time on that deck. If there is an open danger that you as the guest or visitor or tenant that you are aware of, and you are subsequently injured because of it, you cannot recover from the owner of that property. The law will say, maybe the owner knew or should have known, but you DID know. You are also responsible for your own knowledge. If you know there’s a danger, and you still continue to walk into that danger, you assume the risk.
We’ve handled over the years a number of cases involving a structural, deck, or building collapse. The one that comes to mind which was an impactful result for our clients, out of a tragedy, is a deck collapse that actually resulted in the death of a 35-year-old mother of three. And in that case, we had to prove that the deck collapse had a defect that if the owners had inspected it would have been reasonably obvious to a trained inspector.
In this case, the deck had been nailed on to the house. And as you can imagine, nails can fall out. The nails pulled away from the house, or the deck pulled away from the house and collapsed. In that situation where you have a deck attached to the structure, you don’t nail it to the structure you bolted to the structure. But in that case, it wasn’t done properly. Had an inspector, had the owner inspected it, that would have been something that would have been obvious to a trained inspector. This would have told them “This is not proper, this is dangerous. Fix it.” It would have been fixed and our client’s mother would not have been killed.
Victims of a Building Collapse
If you or a loved one has been the victim of a building collapse, deck collapse, or another structural collapse:
- Seek medical attention
- Take photos of the collapse
- Hire a lawyer
Immediately get medical attention, if you need medical attention. That’s rule number one, rule number two, and rule number three.
After that, go out and take photographs of the structure that collapsed. Or have someone you can call to do it if you are too medically ill to do it yourself. There might not be photographs of it before the collapse, although typically there are. However, your photographs after are very revealing about why that structure collapsed in the first place. As personal injury lawyers, we’ve been able to build cases for our clients based on photographs of the collapse.
As we alluded to earlier, it’s important to preserve the evidence or get to the evidence as quickly as possible. If you were injured in a collapse that might have been someone else’s fault, hire a lawyer. We collect evidence, hire engineers or code inspectors. We’ll go out to that property as quickly as is reasonable to evaluate. We let the property owners know, we’re involved now–so do not do anything with that collapse evidence.
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