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The June 24, 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida, is an enormous tragedy for which the precise cause is not yet known. The investigation will no doubt take many months to complete. Even though forensic reports have yet to be issued, there are certain points worthy of note that provide important lessons for many parties, not the least of which are construction contractors. 

Lesson #1: Do Not Delay in Heeding Warning Signs 

Repairs to any building, especially structural repairs, are expensive, and condominiums, because of their associations, make this even more challenging. The average unit owner does not plan for a five- or six-figure special assessment to complete such repairs and, as a result, condominium associations all too often defer much needed repairs. Prior to the Champlain Tower South collapse, repairs to the building were estimated at approximately $15 million. Apparently, this had been the subject of fierce debate for several years among condominium board members, some of whom resigned in 2019 as result. The delay in commencing repairs will certainly be identified as a significant contributing factor to the disastrous collapse. 

Commercial construction contractors who perform work on condominium buildings or are invited to submit proposals for work on such buildings should remain vigilant. If a contractor performing work observes signs of distress, it should promptly inform the owner in writing. 

Further, when submitting a proposal for work on a building, a construction contractor should clearly define the scope of work for which it is responsible. The proposal should also outline specific limitations that disclaim liability for building elements on which the contractor is not performing work. 

Lesson #2: If a Lawsuit Is on the Horizon, Don’t Wait; Get Advice Now!

Insurance proceeds alone will likely not be enough to compensate victims and their families. Wrongful death, personal property and real property claims will quickly add up to multi-millions of dollars. Thus, plaintiffs will seek out and sue every potential defendant (and their insurers). 

It is likely that any contractor who touched the Champlain Towers is at risk of being sued. As a result, these parties should seek sound legal counsel to take pre-emptive steps to prepare for the onslaught of suits.

It’s a good reminder, though, to all construction contractors to hire a trusted attorney experienced in construction law. There are many proactive measures to help protect against potential liability that can be incorporated into a contractor’s daily operations, contracts and procedures. Don’t wait until it is too late. 

Lesson #3: Listen to the Structure When It Speaks – Or Worse, When It Cries Out for Help

Finally, buildings do not “just” collapse. Buildings speak to people through signs and signals of distress readable by a trained eye. There is no doubt that when the forensic story of this collapse is ultimately told it will include a chapter on the many signs of distress over the years that went unnoticed or were not understood. Already, there is evidence of extensive cracking, corrosion and settling, which was either misunderstood or worse—ignored. The forensic investigation will surely reveal many more signs of distress that went unheeded. 

After all, it could happen again. 

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