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Kin of tenants who died in Surfside condo can sue landlords

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Although a $1 billion class-action settlement resolving the Surfside condominium tower’s collapse was approved with much fanfare in June, the legal battles may not be over.

There are potentially dozens of other individual lawsuits that might still be pursued more than a year after the tragedy — with some former condo owners the potential targets.

On Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who is presiding over the landmark case, said that the relatives of dozens of tenants and visitors who died when the oceanfront building fell down could sue the landlords who owned their units for failing to warn them about the 12-story structure’s instability.

Hanzman made the official announcement — at the request of plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case — to clarify questions about the $1 billion final settlement agreement and pending damage awards. In that deal, more than 30 defendants and others agreed to resolve negligence claims involving 98 people who died in the June 24, 2021, collapse. As a result, those parties admitted no responsibility for the deaths and were released from any future liability claims.

Read more: ‘Painful’ division of $1 billion Surfside settlement starts: Some to get more than others

In addition, 136 condo owners at Champlain Towers South agreed to accept $96 million in a settlement for the loss of their units, with the vast majority given releases from being sued in the future — including the building’s condo association. But among those unit owners were a few dozen landlords whose tenants or visitors died in the collapse. Those landlords, it turns out, can still be sued by surviving relatives for liability.

At a court hearing on Monday, Hanzman downplayed the legal risks for the former unit owners. He said he was so confident that the relatives of the 98 people who died in the condo building’s collapse would be satisfied with their damage awards that none — including tenants and visitors who perished — would be compelled to sue any of their landlords.

“The court feels comfortable … that they are going to be close to fully compensated,” Hanzman said, adding that all of the victims’ relatives are going to receive a “large percentage” of their damage claims.

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A woman bikes by a banner that honors the 98 victims of the Champlain Towers South condominium building collapse. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Still, the clarification from Hanzman could have potentially serious implications for some former unit owners if they get sued and don’t have liability insurance coverage. Previously, there had been some misunderstanding that no condo owners at Champlain Towers South could be sued after agreeing to accept the $96 million settlement for the loss of their units in the collapse.

In fact, the vast majority said they were motivated to accept the deal in the spring because it barred any future lawsuits accusing them and their condo association of failing to maintain the building’s safety. The condo association’s engineer noted structural flaws in the pool deck and parking garage areas in a report from 2018, with the tower slated for long overdue repairs totaling $15 million at the time of the collapse. However, the engineer, Morabito Consultants, never indicated that Champlain Towers South was at risk of falling down.

It is unclear how many tenants and visitors died in the Surfside condo tower’s collapse, but there were likely at least 40 — including guests who were visiting parents who owned units, people who were living in units owned by relatives, and renters leasing units at Champlain Towers South.

Relatives of those same tenants and guests who died — along with other victims of the calamity — qualify to make a damage claim to Hanzman for a minimum of $1 million or possibly more for a deceased’s future earnings as well as pain and suffering. The judge began the process of reviewing their damage claims at private hearings last week.

Despite the greater clarity of the final settlement agreement in the class-action negligence case, the relationships among owners, tenants and visitors at Champlain Towers South can be complicated.

Read more: How decades of problems converged the night Champlain Towers fell

Among the 98 dead, about 27 were visitors, and 11 of them were visiting relatives who lived at the building.

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First lady Jill Biden speaks during a public memorial event on Friday, June 24, 2022, to mark the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

Theresa Velasquez, 36, a music industry executive from Los Angeles and former Miami Beach DJ, was visiting her parents in unit 304. Andrea Cattarossi, a 56-year-old architect and mother of three from Buenos Aires, was visiting her parents, sister and niece in unit 501.

Juan Mora Jr., 32, who worked in Chicago, was visiting his parents in unit 1011. Jay Kleiman, 52, of Puerto Rico, was visiting his mother in unit 712 and his brother in 702. Dr. Gary Cohen, 58, was visiting his brother Dr. Brad Cohen, 51, in unit 1110. Elena Chavez, 87, was visiting her daughter Elena Blasser, 64, in 1211. Lisa “Malky” Weisz, 27, and husband Benny Weisz, 31, were visiting her father, Harry Rosenberg, 52, in unit 212.

The Pettengill family was visiting from Paraguay. Luis Pettengill, 36, a cattle rancher, his wife, Sophia Lopez Moreira, 36, sister of Paraguay’s first lady, their three young children and their nanny, Leidy Vanessa Luna Villalba, 23, all died in the collapse.

At the same time, at least 13 people who were living in seven rented units died when the condo building fell down. Among the renters was Linda March, 58, a real estate lawyer from New York, in unit 1204.

Oresme “Gil” Guerra, 60, and his wife, Beatriz “Betty” Guerra, 52, had only lived in unit 910 for three months, had just signed a lease for another beachfront property nearby and spent the day of the collapse painting their new place. Tzvi Ainsworth, 68, and his wife, Ingrid “Itty” Ainsworth, 66, were renting 1104. Dr. Ruslan Manashirov, 36, a neurologist, and his wife, Nicole Doran-Manashirov, 43, a physician assistant at Aventura Hospital’s emergency department, were in unit 703.

The Patel family renting 311 perished — Vishal, 42, his pregnant wife, Bhavna, 38, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aishani Gia. Alfredo Leone and his 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, died in unit 512. Leone’s wife and Lorenzo’s mother, Raquel Oliveira, was out of town that night.

Cassie Stratton, 40, died in 410; her husband, Mike, was out of town on a business trip.

Hanzman started reviewing all Champlain Towers South wrongful death claims in late July at private hearings with the victims’ families, and he expects to finish them in late August. Hanzman said he will likely approve the distribution of the damages in September.

Related stories from Miami Herald

Jay Weaver writes about federal crime at the crossroads of South Florida and Latin America. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was part of the Herald team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news on Elian’s seizure by federal agents. He and three Herald colleagues were 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting for a series on gold smuggling between South America and Miami.





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