Florida Judge Orders Surfside Condo Association Board Into Receivership

20 hours ago
Originally published on July 2, 2021 8:04 pm

Updated July 2, 2021 at 6:01 PM ET

A Miami-Dade Circuit judge has placed the Champlain Towers South condo association into receivership. Judge Michael Hanzman appointed Michael Goldberg to handle all of the condo association's financial matters while the court hears lawsuits related to the building's collapse.

Five lawsuits have been filed so far, and more claims are expected in the coming months.

Authorities have confirmed the deaths of 22 people and say 126 others remain unaccounted for after the catastrophic collapse of most of the 12-story building on June 24. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she has signed an order to demolish the remaining part of structure that she will invoke when engineers advise her it should be done.

At a hearing Friday, Hanzman commended the condo association for agreeing to receivership.

"These individuals who are unit owners here and served on the board are in a tremendously difficult time, a tremendously stressful time. And I commend all of them for having the wisdom and the insight to realize it is time to step aside and let an independent party with no stake in the proceedings, either emotionally or financially, step in and take care of business."

A lawyer representing the condo association says the board held a meeting Thursday and voted unanimously to accept receivership. "Every living and accounted for board members was present. There was one board member who remains regrettably unaccounted for as a result of the collapse of the condominium tower."

A lawyer for the condo association told the judge the building's insurance coverage totals $48 million. The judge said the condo's land will also be an asset, which he estimates will add between $30 million and $50 million to the fund.

The judge instructed the receiver to make arrangements immediately to authorize payments to those directly affected by the building collapse. He instructed the receiver to provide payments up to $10,000 to families of the missing or deceased or to those residents who need housing assistance. And he said $2,000 payments should be made available to families dealing with end-of-life (funeral) costs. Those payments would be an advance on the total recovery that will be available to all parties directly affected by the collapse.

The judge took a firm tone with attorneys, telling them they should consider their role in the case "a public service" and that he wanted to "avoid as much litigation and contention as possible."

He said he wants the case wrapped up within 12 months.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Four more victims have been recovered from the site of the condominium that collapsed last week in Surfside, Fla. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava gave an update to the community earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: Tragically, one of those victims was the 7-year-old daughter of a city of Miami firefighter.

CHANG: This brings the total confirmed dead to 22, and 126 people are still unaccounted for. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So search and rescue has been going on for nine days now, and it sounds like last night was especially grim for rescue crews. Can you just tell us what happened?

ALLEN: Right. Mayor Levine Cava said it was an especially emotional and difficult night for the rescue crews who were working at the site. Officials haven't yet identified the 7-year-old girl out of respect for the family's privacy. But one of the crews working last night were members of the city of Miami's search and rescue team, so that same department that - her father worked in that department. And the local media report that he was on the site when she was found and recovered. Here's Miami-Dade fire chief Alan Cominsky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN COMINSKY: Every victim we removed - it's difficult. It's very difficult. We try to respect. We have a whole process in regards to how we remove each individual that we come across. And unfortunately, you know, we haven't been able to remove any survivors yet.

CHANG: Now, we also mentioned that officials reduced the number of those listed as unaccounted for or missing. Did they explain exactly why they reduced the number?

ALLEN: No, they didn't. Miami-Dade Mayor Levine Cava's been saying that the numbers would be changing. She said police detectives have been working through the lists of residents known to be safe and those who are reported missing. And the number of those listed as safe rose. The number of those listed as missing declines. So there's likely a correlation, but the mayor didn't give any details about that.

CHANG: Well, we have been hearing about this part of the building that's still standing, how it was unstable at one point. What is the latest on that?

ALLEN: Right. You know, as you know, workers were pulled off the site early Thursday after electronic monitors indicated that the building was shifting. The workers are back now. The crews are working on one part of the pile that's considered safe. But clearly, more precautions are being taken now, and the building's stability remains a major concern. Because of that, that's one reason why engineers are now drawing up plans for the building's demolition. Here's a structural engineer with FEMA, Scott Nacheman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT NACHEMAN: We are currently looking at several different methodologies. And as we get technical data, as we get stakeholder information, those decisions will be made.

ALLEN: You know, Nacheman says it's going to take weeks just to come up with a plan.

CHANG: OK - a lot of different threads here. In another development, a Miami judge placed the assets of the Champlain Towers South condo association into receivership. Can you just tell us what that means exactly?

ALLEN: Right. Well, what's happened is that there's - so far, at least five lawsuits have been filed by residents and families of the deceased against the condo association. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman is hearing those cases. And this week, he asked the condo board to consider turning over all of the association's assets to an independent receiver so there would be no conflict of interest. The condo board yesterday voted unanimously to do that with the exception of one board member, who is believed missing in the collapse. At a hearing today, Judge Hanzman thanked the board, saying that they're under tremendous stress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HANZMAN: I commend all of them for having the wisdom and the insight to realize that it was time to step aside and let an independent party with no stake in the proceedings, either emotionally or financially, step in and take care of business.

ALLEN: The condo association is believed to have about $48 million in insurance coverage available to pay out claims. The judge estimated that the land, when it's sold eventually, will bring another 30 to $50 million. He told the receiver as his first order of business, he should begin making payments available - up to $10,000 to families of the missing or deceased or to residents who need housing assistance. And also, $2,000 payments will be made available to families who are dealing with funeral and end-of-life costs.

CHANG: And finally, let's just turn to what NPR has been investigating. You've been looking at what the condo association and the board knew about the building's condition and why it waited so long to make repairs. What new information has come to light on that front?

ALLEN: Well, we've learned that condo association documents, including minutes from their meetings, show the need to make repairs to the 40-year-old building had been discussed for years, and action kept being put off. And that was - it was necessary to do these repairs to comply with county law, but it was expensive. Ultimately, the price tag ran to more than $15 million.

A document presented to the condo association last year shows how contentious it became. People were being asked for a lot of money. They weren't happy. Most members in 2019 resigned in part from the condo board because of the dispute. And then a year later, in a presentation obtained by NPR that was given to members, the condo manager pleaded for civility, saying, complaining or shouting at each other doesn't work. And that work was just getting started when the building collapsed.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.