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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Surfside condo collapse victims reach $997 million settlement

A makeshift memorial near the site of the Champlain Towers South collapse site before the remainder of the build was demolished in Surfside, Fla., July 1, 2021.

By Patricia Mazzei and Livia Albeck-Ripka

Families of the victims of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, that killed 98 people last year have reached a $997 million settlement to compensate them for their staggering losses of life.

The settlement, revealed at a court hearing Wednesday and still pending final approval, includes insurance companies, developers of an adjacent building and other defendants in the extensive civil case. It comes six weeks before the anniversary of the tragedy June 24.

“I’m shocked by this result — I think it’s fantastic,” said Judge Michael Hanzman of the Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County. “This is a recovery that is far in excess of what I had anticipated.”

Before Wednesday’s surprise announcement, the judge had approved a far smaller settlement of $83 million to be split among condo unit owners for their property losses. No compensation had been determined for the families of the dead, who would now receive the $997 million.

“It represents a lot of money, but it’s never going to bring back Jonah’s mom,” said Neil Handler, whose son was one of just a few people rescued alive from the rubble. Jonah Handler’s mother, Stacie Fang, 54, was the first victim identified in the collapse.

“Nobody can deal with what I dealt with last Sunday on Mother’s Day — that’s not something any money is ever going to replace for him,” Handler said of his son, who is now 16 and suffered fractures to many bones in his back.

How the money will be divided among the relatives of the 98 victims will be determined in the coming weeks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is still investigating what caused the 13-story, 135-unit building to partially crumble in the middle of the night, a review that could take years.

The differing compensation for victims’ families, who lost loved ones, and survivors, who lost condo units, led to significant friction between the groups and to raw, emotional court testimony at a hearing in March that pitted the two sides against each other.

“We know we did not cause that collapse,” Oren Cytrynbaum, a unit owner, said then. “A billion dollars, if I were on the other side, would not bring those loved ones back.”

The funds for the $83 million for the unit owners will come from Champlain Towers South’s insurers and the sale of the land where the building stood at 8777 Collins Ave. The nearly 2 acres of beachfront property are expected to sell soon, after an auction, for at least $120 million.

As part of their earlier settlement, the condo owners were released from any liability for negligence in the building’s maintenance. Under Florida law, they could have been sued for up to the value of their units.

At first, any settlement seemed unlikely. Some victims’ families argued that all the money recovered through the lawsuit should go to them, and none to the unit owners. Hanzman disagreed, saying unit owners had to rebuild their lives from scratch after their steep economic losses. The part of the building that did not collapse was demolished in the days after the tragedy, with unit owners never able to return.

Hanzman approved that $83 million settlement in March, with no guarantee that more money would follow for the victims’ families — and the possibility of a long, dragged-out trial that could last years, as many class-action cases do.

The much larger settlement for the victims’ families made public Wednesday came about after the developers of the adjacent luxury building, Eighty Seven Park, and a slew of contractors and consultants who had been sued or investigated by the victims’ lawyers signed on. The plaintiffs had argued that construction work at Eighty Seven Park damaged Champlain Towers South — an accusation that Eighty Seven Park’s developers and contractors denied.

Lawyers said the settlement for the victims’ families could expand further, to about $1 billion, if they reach an agreement with a remaining company. Among the companies that agreed to settle are the engineers who had inspected and begun to conduct work to address serious structural flaws in Champlain Towers South before the collapse.

The companies will not admit to wrongdoing as part of the settlement. But Judd Rosen, one of the lawyers for the families of the victims who did not own condo units, said the settlement numbers “speak for themselves.”

“It’s a step in the right direction towards bringing them a sense of dignity and accountability for what happened,” he said of victims’ families. “A billion dollars doesn’t get paid without some sense of accountability for this loss.”

In all, the total amount recovered for both the victims’ families and the survivors could surpass $1.1 billion.

Hanzman said he would like to finalize the settlement before June 24 and compensate survivors and victims’ families by the fall.

Susana Alvarez, 62, a survivor of the collapse, said she and other unit owners have received no information about when they would actually receive that money.

“A lot of us need to buy homes; we’re literally living with relatives,” she said, adding that she just wanted to move on from that horrific day.

“I’m alive, thank God,” she said. “We just want to be at peace.”

Pablo Rodriguez, who lost his mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, in the collapse, said that he had mixed emotions about the settlement.

“I think it’s the best result that we could hope for given the situation,” Rodriguez said, although “there’s really no amount of money that makes everything right.”

Almost a year later, Rodriguez, 41, said the death of his loved ones still feels unreal, and haunting.

“That video of the building falling,” he said, “it still wakes me up at night.”

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