Champlain Towers and Structural Collapse Cases

Backstory: The Champlain Towers located in Surfside, Florida condos, collapsed on June 23, 2021, resulting in 97 deaths, as of July 18.

Structural collapses can happen to buildings, decks, balconies, or even parking lots 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 accident, there can be a lot of questions from loved ones as to why it happened and how it could 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 collapse case, and offer free legal consultation for structural collapse and other personal injury cases.

 

Transcript from Episode 2, For Justice’s Sake Podcast

Renee Cooper 

Thanks for tuning in to For Justice’s Sake, hosted by the Dixon Firm in Atlanta, Georgia. Today’s episode is about structural collapse. My name is Renee Cooper.

 

Rod Dixon 

I’m Rod Dixon.

 

Renee Cooper 

Today’s 15-second shout-out goes to Chops Lobster Bar in Atlanta in Buckhead, Rod’s favorite restaurant for over a decade. So we’re excited to add them to the list of our $50 giveaways. Please make sure you check your emails to see if you win each month.

 

Renee Cooper 

Alright, so our first question is, could the demolition or the storm affect the evidence as to why the building collapsed?

 

Rod Dixon 

The answer is yes, it absolutely could impact the evidence. One of the things that’s important in the context of cases we work up is getting the evidence; getting to it quickly, because things like when rain can impact the evidence. The evidence can be impacted by people manipulating it, sometimes in a good way, like it with the collapse or trying to find the victims. And then at other times, people can sometimes just go out and disrupt the evidence, intentionally or unintentionally.

 

Rod Dixon 

And so the storms, the rain, 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. And so all of those 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.

 

Renee Cooper 

And in this case, has there already been some evidence that they’ve seen that they knew that this collapse was possibly imminent?

 

Rod Dixon 

Yeah, 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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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.

 

Renee Cooper 

But even before this happens, just a few weeks ago, there were other collapses happening here. Here in Athens, a floor caved in in a home, I think there was a party going on. In May, there was a balcony collapse in Malibu that had video that was circulating through the internet that was really scary because they fell onto rocks below them. Also in Ohio, there was two different collapses. One that had one woman died, and then another with 25 to 30 people [injured].

 

Renee Cooper 

It’s just across the country, I think, as more people are making their way outside and going to events and visiting others, this is definitely a possibility. It’s not an isolated event. So what can people do now to get ahead of that? So let’s say leasing companies, what can leasing companies or people who own buildings do now to make sure that they avoid a lawsuit?

 

Rod Dixon 

Yeah, so there are, I guess I would call categories of collapses. 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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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.

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Renee Cooper 

Right? So let’s say I am attending a party of somebody who may be renting, and I’m starting to see a lot of activity on a deck. Is there something I can look at to kind of keep myself knowing whether it’s even okay to stay in this place?

 

Rod Dixon 

Yeah. So 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. And with respect to those 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, and then you step, and the board breaks and you follow 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.

 

Rod Dixon 

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 that deck. 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 is wobbling, where this the deck, the stairs, the railing, no parts of a deck should wobble. And if you get a wobbly portion, there’s a problem. Get off it.

 

Rod Dixon 

You can also at times, you can’t see rot, wooden decks, but sometimes you can’t. And if you see that, you should be aware that there’s a potential problem. And maybe you don’t want to spend time on that deck. And so everyone is aware, if there is an open danger that you as the guest or visitor or tenant that you are aware of, in a lot of circumstances, if you are subsequently injured because of that open danger that you were aware of, you cannot recover from the owner of that property, because the law will say, maybe the owner knew or should have known, but you DID know. And so you are also responsible for your own knowledge. And if you know there’s a danger, and you still continue to walk into that danger, you know what? Personal responsibility, you assume the risk.

 

Renee Cooper 

So let’s say that I am in a structural collapse situation, or I know someone who’s close to me who is. What are some of the first things I should do? And I and it was something I didn’t know about it was kind of surprised? What’s the first thing you should do?

 

Rod Dixon 

Immediately get medical attention, if you need medical attention. That’s rule number one, rule number two, and rule number three. But after that, particularly if there’s someone you can call if you are too medically ill to do it yourself, to go out and take photographs. Photographs, photographs, photographs of the structure that collapsed. Because even though there might not be photographs of it before the collapse, although typically there are, your photographs after are very revealing about why that structure collapsed in the first place. So as personal injury lawyers, we’ve been able to build cases for our clients based upon the photographs of the collapse.

 

Rod Dixon 

And then of course, as we alluded to earlier, it’s important to preserve the evidence or get to the evidence as quickly as possible. And so if you think that you were injured in a collapse, that might have been someone else’s fault, hire a lawyer, because that’s what we do is collect evidence. And so one of the things we’ll do immediately is hire an engineer or code inspector to go out to that property as quickly as is reasonable to evaluate. Even before that, though, we let the property owners know, we’re involved now–so do not do anything with that collapse evidence. If you do something with it, and we’re unaware of that, then you will be responsible for destroying evidence.

 

Rod Dixon 

I have one more question.

 

Rod Dixon 

Go ahead.

 

Renee Cooper 

Okay. This is a lot of good information. And just wanted to always tie it back to any sort of previous client that we may have had or any incidents that are similar to this. Can you explain in one of our previous cases that dealt with a similar sort of structural collapse?

 

Rod Dixon 

Yeah, so we’ve handled over the years a number of cases involving structural collapse. The one that comes to mind which was a terrific 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 debt collapse had a defect that if the owners had inspected it would have been reasonably obvious to a trained inspector. And so in this case, the deck had been nailed on to the house. And as you can imagine, nails can fall out. And so 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 and 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.

 

Renee Cooper 

As usual, this has been great information. Thank you so much! Our food is actually here,  so we’re going to enjoy our time at CHOPS.

 

Rod Dixon 

I’m eating already!

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