In the minutes it took for Champlain Towers South to collapse, the seaside life Raysa Rodriguez knew and loved vanished. She misses her friends, beach barbecues and boardwalk bike rides as she starts over from scratch at her parents’ house, sleeping in her childhood bedroom — when she’s able to sleep. After 18 years in Surfside, where she was nicknamed “the mayor” of the condo, she’s living near the Tamiami Trail, about as far from the ocean as you can get in Miami. Rodriguez is still traumatized by the near-death experience, still mourning friends, still in limbo six months after 98 people were killed when the building fell at 1:22 a.m. on a harrowing summer night. But she and her fellow victims are suffering anew.
They are caught in a bitter legal fight
over money, and blame. Neighbors once united in grief are
now pitted against one another with hundreds of millions of
dollars at stake. Anger infuses the unanswered questions of
the disaster’s victims, who are trying to reconstruct
interrupted lives and heal broken families. Who should get
what from the sale of the land, insurance coverage and a
class-action lawsuit? Who is at fault for the design and
construction defects that led to the collapse, or delays of
the building’s renovation project? How much will those found
to be negligent have to pay? The division that cuts deepest
is this one: A small group of relatives of the dead insist
that surviving condo owners deserve nothing and should be
held liable for damages because of their failure to maintain
the building’s safety.
Rodriguez, a strong advocate of the condo board’s $15 million repair plan, is infuriated, confused and sad. She helped a 90-year-old disabled neighbor, a friend and the friend’s 8-year-old son and puppy escape down a crumbling staircase and climb down a ladder that night. She left with the clothes on her back, her passport and two T-shirts she stuffed into her purse.
“I lost everything. I’m homeless,” said Rodriguez, 59, who lived in unit 907. “We feel compassion for the family members who lost loved ones. We are not greedy. We just want to be compensated for our property. But some of the relatives suing for wrongful death want to take every penny from us — and blame us, too.” Even if sticky calculations of the value of property and the value of human life are reconciled, lawyers on all sides and the judge overseeing a string of lawsuits have conceded there will never be enough to satisfy everyone for their losses. “I thought the night of the collapse was surreal, but the aftermath, with the financial issues and legal squabbling, it’s total mishegoss,” said Steve Rosenthal, using the Yiddish word for craziness. He was rescued from his seventh-floor balcony, clutching a shopping bag into which he’d tossed a few items of clothing while wondering with each passing second if the rest of the swaying building would topple and bury him. The tragedy of the June 24 condo tower collapse has moved from the rubble pile at 8777 Collins Ave. to a downtown courtroom.
A frustrated judge who does not want to
be thrust into the role of Solomon is grappling with the
ugly conflict he had hoped to avoid. “The last thing I want
to see is victims fighting over the allocation. That would
be a shame,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said
when he stated his goal of circumventing a legal battle that
could drag on for years. “Let’s see if we can reach a
compromise to avoid an unseemly dispute. These people are
going to be left with significant shortfalls.”
No fast resolution Hanzman’s plan was to quickly distribute money for economic loss claims through settlement talks so that displaced condo owners could be reimbursed for at least the appraised value of their units, find new homes and get their lives back on track. They would exit the class-action suit. Then he would concentrate on the more complex wrongful death claims and schedule a trial for next summer. But Hanzman discovered that the owners who survived, relatives of people who died and renters and visitors in the 136-unit building disagreed over how funds should be split. He also realized a limited amount of money would be available for damages, starting with an estimate of $170 million and possibly more from negligence claims. But overall, the pot will be small. “As much as we want this to finally be over, and a fair share for those of us who desperately need to rebuild their lives, it’s going to be nasty,” said survivor Alfredo Lopez, who is renting an apartment with his wife and son after staying at his mother-in-law’s place for months. He owned Champlain South 605 for 23 years. Their unit was in the intact section of the building that was later demolished, but right on the edge of the collapsed section, so when Lopez opened his front door that night, all he saw was a cliff, a black void where his neighbors’ units had stood. “I thought we were going to die.”
The Langesfeld family has a different
perspective on loss. And that is at the crux of the dispute.
“Homeless? I wish we had that problem. Nicole’s home is six
feet underground. Forever,” said Pablo Langesfeld, father of
Nicole Langesfeld, a 26-year-old lawyer and newlywed who
perished with husband Luis Sadovnic, 28. They lived in unit
804. “To me, there is nothing to negotiate, nothing to
compromise on. All money should go to the relatives of the
innocent victims. Apartments and material things are
replaceable. Life is irreplaceable. “Losing everything is
losing life.” Survivor Iliana Monteagudo, who describes
herself as “a living miracle,” believes the most equitable
solution is to divide the $170 million among owners
according to the size of their condos. She ran out of her
611 unit seconds before that section collapsed and scrambled
down six flights of stairs as the building fell. She’s
renting a Miami Beach apartment where she has panic attacks
when she looks down from her terrace or has to ride the
elevator. Like many survivors, Monteagudo, 64, is being
treated for depression and insomnia and doesn’t know where
she’ll go when her lease runs out as rents and home prices
continue to skyrocket throughout South Florida. “We didn’t
kill anybody,” said Monteagudo, who had just purchased her
$600,000 condo in December 2020. “The people who died you
cannot resuscitate with money. “If you pay a huge amount for
the people who died, what are the people who are alive
supposed to do? The families of the people who died have
their own homes and belongings. We are starting over at
zero. Is that fair?”
A difficult mediation To find a way forward, Hanzman appointed prominent Miami lawyer Bruce Greer as mediator to forge a compromise on how to divvy up the $170 million. “The focus needs to be on trying to avoid an allocation fight between those who lost their property and the wrongful death claimants,” Hanzman said in October. His advice went unheeded. Even Greer was taken aback by the chasm between the two most intractable factions. “This is a heartbreaking situation,” Greer told Hanzman. “There are very recalcitrant positions. The talk has been more gentle in court than in my conversations.” In Greer’s initial pessimistic assessment, two groups at the extremes weren’t willing to meet other victims in the middle. Some survivors argued they should receive all proceeds from the sale and insurance because they owned the property and paid the insurance premiums.
Absolutely not, said some relatives and
heirs of those who died, arguing that not only should they
receive all proceeds but that owners should shoulder
liability for poor maintenance of the building. They and
their lawyers cite Florida statute 718.119, asserting it
allows them to assess condo owners for death claims. They
argue that the Champlain South owners are at fault because
they let the building deteriorate and postponed a $15
million project to repair major structural flaws found by
the condo board’s engineering consultant in 2018. To
complicate matters further, there are overlapping
constituents because many owners died, which could put those
family members in the position of blaming their relatives
for the collapse while trying to collect from their estates.
Non-owners’ relatives are blaming owners they were renting
from or visiting as guests. “This case is a black swan,”
Hanzman said in court. “It is not business as usual.”
What the victims will collect comes from three sources: Insurance carriers for the condo association are paying $50 million for property loss, personal injury and death coverage. The sale of the nearly two-acre oceanfront property is expected to yield $120 million, offered in an opening bid by a United Arab Emirates real estate developer, and likely millions more if other developers make higher bids at a February auction. Also, third parties being sued for negligence could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. They include the condo association and its engineering consultant, Morabito Consultants, the condo association’s law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, and the developer of the Eighty Seven Park luxury high-rise built just south of the Champlain lot, in Miami Beach. ‘Emotion and anger’ “There is a lot of emotion and anger.
On one side, the argument is that unit
owners should get nothing, that ‘My son or my daughter or my
mother died because they didn’t maintain the building.’ On
the other side, the owners say ‘We did nothing negligent, we
are not to blame, we lost our nest egg and now we’re out on
the street,’‘’ Hanzman said. “I don’t expect unanimity.
Whatever deal is reached I will not be shocked to see
lawyers and victims come in and say it’s unfair.”
Disappointed by the hard-liners, Hanzman created a mediation
committee of lawyers and victims to break the stalemate.
Judd Rosen, appointed by Hanzman to represent people who
died but did not own units, said progress has been made but
there is still a long way to go.
“The role of this mediation is different from a typical mediation,” Rosen said. “It’s not for one side to win over the other. It’s for all sides to see that there is a benefit in finding a middle ground. It’s a limited-funds case.” Aaron Podhurst, whose law firm represents victims, is optimistic mediation will work once there’s more clarity on the amount of money at stake. “People took extreme positions because they don’t know what they’re going to get,” Podhurst said in court. “Neighbors can’t be suing each other and trying to crush each other. It’s not in their best interests.” Hanzman has final say over compensation funds, which could be allocated in the spring “if we can resolve this,” he said. “If it’s not settled, I’ll call balls and strikes, and that money will sit there for God knows how long, and that’s not going to help anybody.”
Rosenthal sees the wisdom of settling and sharing. Semi-retired from the advertising business at age 72, he can’t afford to wait on a drawn-out court case. He’s paying $3,700 a month for a one-bedroom Brickell apartment, which he had to furnish. Aside from a blue blazer that was at the dry cleaner’s and Hanes underwear that was donated to survivors, he had to restock his entire wardrobe. His beloved Mercedes convertible was flattened. Among the various groups affected by the collapse, survivors need the most immediate relief, he said. “My name is Rosenthal, not Rockefeller or Rothschild,” said Rosenthal, wearing the same loafers, jeans and T-shirt he wore when firefighters plucked him from his balcony with a ladder truck. “I have to go on living. We feel terrible about the friends and neighbors who died but, with all due respect, they’re dead. Most of their heirs are not poor. The independent, self-sufficient heir, the New York lawyer or trader making $300,000 and living in a home in New Jersey, they will get money down the road when the lawsuits are settled. I understand if you lost your parents, even if they were 90 years old, it’s life-changing, but they don’t need to buy salt and pepper shakers, bath towels and a bed.” “Then there’s those of us who lost our only home, yet some of these heirs argue we should get hit twice — lose our possessions and get nothing for doing nothing and be penalized for negligence to boot? No jury is going to buy that.”
Former Champlain owner Lopez, who is
paying $3,450 in rent and fears he may have to move out of
South Florida, hopes for a mediation breakthrough that will
push back the lawyers whose strategy, he says, “casts us as
irresponsible enemies, because they are out for blood, they
want it all.” From what he’s heard so far from the Silva
brothers, Carlos and Jorge, “we are in for the fight of our
lives,” Lopez said. The Silva and Silva law firm displays a
running tally on its website of the millions in awards they
have won for clients in medical malpractice cases, airline
crashes, the FIU bridge collapse. They were driven to pursue
personal injury law by the death of their mother “at the
hands of an anesthesiologist with a dark and horrible
history of medical negligence,” they say. They have filed
lawsuits for the relatives of eight people who died in
Surfside. “There is no doubt this building was screaming for
years that exactly this would happen,” Jorge Silva told the
Lopez finds irony in the fact that some of the owners who died did not want to pay costly assessments for repairs and were knocking on doors with a petition to reject the renovation plan. A review of past meeting minutes would confirm who was opposed. “To claim that we knew the building wasn’t sound and we were derelict is ludicrous. Why would we be living in it?” he said. “We had secured a $15 million loan for repairs and I was ready to pay my $100,000 assessment. Now my family is in hell emotionally and financially. To treat us with disrespect because we got out alive is such a two-faced attitude, but I guess that’s human nature when money is involved.” David Rodan’s brother Moises, 28, died in the collapse. So did his cousins Andres Levine and Luis Sadovnic. They lived in units owned by their grandparents. Rodan does not believe owners are at fault but he does believe relatives deserve the bulk of any settlement money. “The value of lives is significantly greater than the value of those apartments,” he said. “However, our priority isn’t money, it’s justice. We want the state attorney to prosecute a criminal case.”
Some survivors say Hanzman has grown less sympathetic to their plight. They are stunned that he accepted a $96 million appraisal for the total value of the condominiums and have asked for another appraisal. The values ascribed to their units are so much lower than they expected that many are distraught about their future. Rodriguez’s 1,200-square-foot, one-bedroom, two-bathroom unit with what she calls a “million-dollar view” was appraised for $436,000, at least $270,000 less than what she thought it was worth. She had recently installed impact windows and a new air conditioner. She’s seen 900-square-foot oceanfront units selling for $900,000 in today’s overheated market. “It’s a joke. It doesn’t compute. I tore it up,” said Rodriguez, who worked 37 years for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Postal Service. “I couldn’t even buy a trailer in Homestead for that amount.” Mayra Cruz’s 1,586-square-foot unit 1205 with a 620-square-foot wraparound balcony was appraised for $600,000, at least $250,000 less than what she could have sold it for, she estimates. “I hope these appraisals will be thrown out and we can sort out what we deserve in mediation, understanding that we are all in this together,” Cruz said. “The wrongful death people are in agony, and in their pain they need to pin responsibility on someone for something so senseless, but do they really want to keep pointing fingers at us and leave us broke? What are they going to do with all the money? It’s not going to bring their loved ones back.”
Rosenthal’s two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,560-square-foot unit was appraised for $550,000 yet he had it appraised for $735,000 in 2018. “I can’t even afford to move to West Hialeah given what’s happened with real estate lately,” he said. “This is what scares me. I don’t know where I’m going to live.” Compassion fund controversy Survivors found themselves at odds again last week when the National Compassion Fund announced how it was allotting the $4.6 million raised by local nonprofit foundations. The fund, which has overseen the distribution of charitable donations at other disasters, followed its own methodology, prioritizing victims into five tiers, with 93 relatives receiving $39,325 per deceased family member, or 79 percent of the total. Three people who were hospitalized received $37,636.93 each. Two people who were treated for injuries as outpatients received $15,000 each.
Sixty-five survivors who were in the building when it collapsed received $9,500 each and 50 residents who were not present received between $2,000 and $4,000 each. The discrepancies in the payments made some survivors livid. Others broke down in tears. They feel forgotten. And once again, pitted against their neighbors in an awful competition. Those who received $7,500 in emergency aid in June and July from the Support Surfside fund had that amount deducted from their check, so many survivors, such as Rodriguez, wound up with just $2,000. “No compassion for me, not for the horror I went through, not for the torment I still have today hearing in my head the voice of a lady trapped in the rubble screaming, ‘Help me, don’t leave me!’” said Rodriguez, who is on the court’s mediation committee. “Not for my destroyed home. Not for the memories of my friends. I can’t even bring myself to erase their numbers off my phone.”
Rodriguez was friends with an affluent retired couple who died. Their well-to-do sons received nearly $80,000. That’s just one example of people who don’t need financial assistance, she said. “We’re mystified and hurt,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t know anybody who gave money to help traumatized, homeless victims who wanted their donations to go to heirs making good salaries and living in nice homes or to people who own second and third homes.” Cruz called her $1,000 check “a slap in the face.” Several lawyers have drawn parallels between the Surfside disaster and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But in New York, the U.S. government created the $7 billion September 11th Compensation Fund for thousands of victims to encourage them to settle their claims rather than sue the airlines and set off an economic crisis. The task of assigning a specific value to each human life based on projected lifetime earnings was given to lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who wrote about the process in his book “What is Life Worth?” now a Netflix movie.
In the Surfside cases, no government entities are providing funds. From here on out, Champlain South survivors will rely on Hanzman and their lawyers for compensation money. As they brace themselves for more excruciating hearings and combative meetings in the new year, they find that practicing gratitude for their spared lives is therapeutic. Rosenthal prays at his temple every morning. Monteagudo plays piano tunes for elderly residents at the small adult living facility she manages in Little Havana. Lopez takes 3 a.m. bike rides on empty downtown streets when he can’t sleep. And Rodriguez rides her bike around and around the Miccosukee Golf and Country Club in deep West Miami-Dade. The ocean is but a dream.