June 24, 2021

Nothing is sadder than hearing that death occurs as a result of building damage or collapse like that which occurred in the early morning hours, when the Champlain Towers South in Miami, FL collapsed.  In my law firm’s representation of condos and homes damaged by wind, water, or sinkholes, we remind our clients that buildings are just sticks and bricks, to be repaired or replaced.  Losing life, as has already been documented, creates an entirely different situation and set of priorities.

To date, here is what we know about the Champlain Towers South building:  On Thursday, June 24, 2021, a video captured the collapse of the inner core of the structure, bringing it almost completely down, creating a large pile of rubble under which an unknown number of people are currently being rescued or located.  The destruction to the structure is extraordinary, with the remaining structure resembling the damage caused by Timothy McVeigh using explosives contained within a U-Haul Truck to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  While the Murrah Building attack resulted in the deaths of 168 people, so far, only one death has been confirmed in the Champlain Towers, but at least 99 people are unaccounted for.  The damage at Champlain Towers South also appears different from the Murrah Building.  While the damage to the Murrah Building represented lateral, side-to-side damage caused by the explosion of the U-Haul filled with explosives, the damage to the Champlain Towers building appears to be the core of the structure collapsing.

Currently, the cause of the damage to the structure or what triggered the collapse is unknown.  It may take months before the actual cause of the collapse is established.  The building is owned and operated by the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, Inc., like the insured under a commercial policy of insurance for the structure.  The Champlain Towers South building consists of 136 units on a 12-story structure.  Built in 1981, the property consists of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, according to real estate records. Most are between 1,200 and 2,243 square feet.

Whether the families residing at Champlain Towers South will be able to seek coverage under their policy will ultimately turn on what caused the building to collapse.

Collapse is a “Peril Specific” Coverage Issue 

Most commercial insurance policies for condominiums contain standard, “collapse coverage” in the event a building is reduced to rubble, as this was clearly has.  A standard collapse provision describes this “peril-specific” inquiry associated with a building, collapsing as this has:

ADDITIONAL COVERAGES:  (1) Collapse – We pay for loss caused by direct physical loss involving collapse of a building or structure or any part of a building or structure caused only by one or more of the following:

(a) specific perils; all only as covered in the Commercial Property coverage;

(b) hidden decay;

(c) hidden insect or vermin damage;

(d) weight of people or business personal property;

(e) weight of rain that collects on a roof; or

(f) the use of defective material or methods in construction, remodeling, or renovation if the collapse occurs during the course of the construction, remodeling, or renovation.

For context, “hidden decay” could refer to the hidden decay of the structural members, although the extent of such decay would have taken years to develop and would likely have been known to the owners or their insurers.  The most common claim comes from the hidden decay in single family residences, where the home sits upon wooden cross beams consumed by wood destroying organisms (e.g. termites).

History of the Champlain Towers South Building

The public records associated with Champlain Towers South reflects that the property has been inspected, as required every 40 years, and passed without reference to any significant decay of the structural members.  However, it was reported that Shimon Wdowinski, a Harvard-educated professor at Florida International University in Earth and Environment, had previously inspected the building.  In his 2020 report, Wdowinski states that the building was sinking, at a rate of 2mm a year in the 1990s, and may have continued, at an unknown rate. 

For now, the focus remains less on what caused the collapse, and instead focus on rescuing any victims trapped in the rubble.  As was the case in the excavation of the World Trade Center after the attacks on September 11, 2001, locating and recovering bodies, alive or otherwise is difficult and a continued threat to first responders, given the unstable condition of the remaining structure.

The other potential explanation could be damage caused by sinkhole loss, which the Corless Barfield Trial Group is especially familiar with.  There are then two kinds of sinkhole coverage, one commonly referred to as “standard” sinkhole coverage, or a second, referred to as “catastrophic collapse,” where the building damage is so severe, the building must be condemned by local authorities.  Certainly, a complete investigation of the property would include geotechnical exploration of the subsurface to determine the state of the limestone upon which the building was constructed.

For now, the families with missing persons associated with the building must wait until a plan to locate and rescue the parties who remain unaccounted for, and the insurance issues will have to wait until more information can be gathered.

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