Condominium ownership involves personal control and responsibility of an individual housing unit and joint ownership with other community residents of common areas, like club houses, parking lots and swimming pools. Florida law defines a condominium association as the entity responsible for the operation of a condo community's common elements. Membership in the condominium association is automatic for owners, but condo association leadership has primary control of managing shared areas and enforcing community rules.
Although condo owners elect an association's leadership, the association won’t necessarily do what a condo owner or a group of owners want. Association leaders sometimes must contend with conflicting interests. As owners themselves, they may want to avoid authorizing expensive special assessments to pay for repairs. Pressure from other condo owners against these assessments also can stall management from funding maintenance, even if they understand the need for it.
DUTY TO REPAIR
Florida statute section 718.113(1) assigns responsibility for maintenance of common areas to the association. Maintenance is part of an association's mission to uphold or increase property value. If you are involved in a dispute with your condo association, a Fort Lauderdale condo mediator like David S. Tupler can help both sides reach an amicable resolution.
Can a condo owner sue an association for poor maintenance?
An association that ignores necessary maintenance exposes itself to litigation from a condo owner or group of owners. Section 718.303 of Florida state law grants condo owners the right to sue their association if it does not meet its maintenance responsibilities. Owners can petition a court to force an association to make common area repairs. Prior to filing a lawsuit, an owner's attorney could open conversations with the association, citing its legal responsibilities. Such an effort might result in acceptable action, but litigation remains an option in the face of continued opposition to necessary maintenance and upkeep. Often; however, both parties find mediation to be a less costly and less stressful option for settling condominium disputes.
Insurability of common areas
Lack of maintenance to common areas could impact insurability of the property's elements. A problem rising to that level could give condo owners leverage against an uncooperative association. Florida law section 718.111(11)(a) requires that an association insure common areas for their replacement cost. The Condominium Declaration used to establish the community likely includes this requirement as well.
When an association needs to renew an insurance policy for the common areas, the insurer usually inspects the property. Upon discovering problems, an insurer may decline coverage or require repairs. An association applying for a new or renewed policy must disclose property conditions that would present a financial risk to an insurer. Failure to disclose poor property conditions on an application could result in an insurer's refusal to pay future claims made upon the policy.
In general, condo owners have a right to see all official records of the association, which could include an insurance application. Documentation indicating that an association is hiding or downplaying property deterioration could improve a condo owner's position when trying to pressure an association to take action.
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Condos reaching their end of life
The unpleasant reality for many condominiums is that their structures cannot last forever. In April 2020, an article at Florida Construction News reported that many oceanfront condos built in the 1970s would not survive beyond 50 years. Oceanfront properties in particular experience maintenance difficulties due to salt in the air, which could be compounded by the high winds of recurrent hurricanes.
A report from WSTP news about the inevitable deterioration of some condos highlighted the fact that even some well-maintained buildings often still need prohibitively expensive work to remain livable and safe. When association boards present these findings to the association members, the high-dollar figures could make the repairs less palatable. Condo owners who approve special assessments necessary to pay for maintenance often face large bills. They sometimes must move out and live elsewhere while major work is done.
At times, a condo association might try to pass a scaled-down rehabilitation project that does not fully reflect an engineering inspection recommendation. Such compromises may be justified as a way to control expenses, but the fact that big investments are needed to cover necessary maintenance does not excuse an association from its legal obligation to properly maintain the premises. In some cases, the substantial costs exceed the means of many residents. Approving an assessment would simply impose too much financial hardship. This situation ultimately leaves these condo owners with termination as their only viable alternative.
Selling land instead of fixing condos
In a voluntary termination, the association has the approval of condo owners to tear down the deteriorated buildings and sell the land. Land in desirable locations often has greater value compared to the high costs of rehabilitation of the existing condominium. Owners may cash out their value and move on. Achieving a voluntary termination; however, is not a simple process. Many costs are involved creating the termination plan, appraising the property and allocating money to all parties. Additionally, a handful of condo members may block a voluntary termination.
Mediation for Fort Lauderdale condo owners and associations
Condo owners deserve answers to questions about the structural integrity of their home. An association may wish to avoid the subject entirely due to the huge financial consequences – Even ordering an engineering inspection presents a significant expense. Condo Mediator David S. Tupler can help both parties navigate these highly contentious issues and reach a resolution that benefits everyone involved. Contact our office in Fort Lauderdale today to discuss your concerns about the maintenance of your building.
JUNE 24, 2021: SURFSIDE CONDO COLLAPSES
At approximately 1:25 a.m. on June 24, 2021, the condominium at Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, suffered a structural failure. Within minutes, half of the 12-story building collapsed rapidly with each level pancaking on top of the one below, killing 98 residents as they slept. A security camera on a neighboring building recorded the horrifying event that left a mound of rubble and few survivors. Emergency personnel in the community launched rescue operations immediately, and questions about what happened were raised just as quickly.
LEGAL TIMELINE OF THE
SURFSIDE CONDO COLLAPSE
From the beginning, investigations by journalists and town officials brought to light a structural engineering report from October 2018.
2018: Red flags in report
Prepared by Morabito Consultants, the nine-page report cited:
- cracked concrete beams in the parking garage
- significant structural damage to the concrete slab below the pool deck
- insufficient slope of the concrete slab that prevented water drainage and allowed water pooling
The report concluded that major repairs were needed immediately, and that failure to fix structural damage would accelerate concrete deterioration.
November 2018: Association meeting
The minutes of the Nov. 15, 2021 meeting of the association board contained reassuring statements from a Surfside town official who had reviewed the engineering report. He told the board that the building was in "very good shape."
April 2021: Letter to condo residents
The president of the condo association sent a letter to residents regarding an upcoming meeting of the board. The letter informed condo owners that the situation had become very serious since the 2018 inspection by engineers. Her letter directly mentioned how the cracking concrete was exposing the supportive steel rebar, which was rusting. The letter proposed a $15 million special assessment to pay for the repairs.
A little more than two months later on June 24, 2021, the condo collapse occurred before the association and residents had decided upon what action would be taken to address the rapidly worsening damage.
June 2021: Avalanche of lawsuits
Evidence uncovered so far appears to place the blame on structural deterioration, delayed maintenance, and perhaps construction defects. Lawsuits on behalf of the victims and surviving residents have mounted quickly and are expected to be certified into a class action consisting of two parts:
- personal injury and wrongful death
- property damage and other economic losses
June 2021: First lawsuit filed
CBS Miami Channel 4 reported that the first lawsuit was filed. An attorney contacted by a surviving resident the same day as the collapse prepared a lawsuit and proposed that it be a class action on behalf of all condo owners.
According to court filings, the lawsuit:
- names the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association as the defendant
- states that the association failed in its duty to perform timely maintenance and repairs necessary for safety
- seeks $5 million in compensation
June 28: Second lawsuit filed
By the Monday following the collapse, even as the final death toll remained unknown, another condo owner filed a second lawsuit. Court filings for this lawsuit proposed that the court organize the incoming lawsuits so that all relevant documents and evidence could be preserved and organized.
July 2021: Judge assigned to lawsuits
As lawsuits continued to pour into the local court in Miami, the decision was made in early July to place Judge Michael Hanzman of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in charge of all of them. Judge Hanzman subsequently called upon the numerous lawyers representing injured parties to select a lead attorney to interface with the court to prevent delays and an unnecessary strain on court resources.
By late August 2021, 38 lawsuits had hit the court system. Litigation is likely to become a consolidated complaint because certification as a class action is expected to occur. Should certification take place, all residents would have the ability to join the suit, although individuals may choose to pursue separate legal actions instead.
So far, the pending class action has accused the Champlain association of negligence, but additional accusations may arise in the future. Law firms representing victims continue to investigate the collapse and subpoena materials.
The 2018 structural engineering report currently forms the heart of the case due to its documentation of serious structural damage. Armed with this evidence and the board's lack of action, the legal complaint states that the association failed to maintain a structurally sound building and did not provide the residents with meaningful warning about potential danger.
August 2021: Insurers & Lien Holders ID'd
After reviewing the insurance policies in place for the condominium residents, Judge Hanzman said he did not believe the funds to be enough to cover all damages, but aimed to oversee their distribution in a transparent manner.
Insurance coverage available for injured parties included:
- $31.4 million from Great American Insurance for the physical property
- $18 million in liability insurance from multiple other insurers
Judge Hanzman ordered a preliminary disbursement of up to $10,000 per displaced family to pay for new housing while litigation continues. Another preliminary disbursement of up to $2,000 was authorized to pay families who needed to make final arrangements for deceased relatives.
Although surviving family members and survivors who lost their homes will have legitimate claims upon the compensation expected to result from litigation, lenders may potentially be first in line for settlement money. The destruction of the condo tower eliminated collateral for the mortgages, and final amounts directed to lenders may end up being lower than what was owed.
October 2021: Investigations continue
Lawyers representing the victims of the condo collapse are currently engaged in meticulous investigations meant to secure evidence of negligence and identify all liable parties. The results of these investigations could result in the naming of additional defendants that could potentially increase the amount of money available to victims.
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CHAMPLAIN TOWERS SOUTH COLLAPSE:
A SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
Updated: October 5, 2021
In the late 1970s, Miami-Dade County had a moratorium in place regarding new oceanfront construction in Surfside, a small community north of Miami Beach. Problems with the water and sewer system prompted the action, but the developers of the Champlain Towers contributed $200,000 in 1979 for water infrastructure upgrades so that they could proceed with building the 136-unit condominium at 8777 Collins. Ave.
Evidence of future problems with the structure emerged in the 1990s. An analysis of satellite data by a professor at Florida International University showed that the ground beneath the tower was sinking unexpectedly. Although the location of the tower was on the portion of the barrier island with bedrock, the professor's team noted a pocket of movement directly beneath the condo tower. These findings were published in 2020 in the Ocean & Coastal Management journal.
October 2018: Report warns of deterioration
As 2021 approached, the condo tower was coming due for a mandatory engineering recertification at the 40-year mark. The structural engineering inspection by Morabito Consultants issued to the condo association in October 2018 warned of substantial structural damage. The flatness of the concrete slab under the pool deck was allowing water to pool and seep into concrete structures. As a result, the report noted areas of cracking concrete that exposed steel rebar to the elements.
November 2018: Issues downplayed
A meeting of the Champlain association board included comments from a official from the town of Surfside. According to the meeting minutes, he said that the building was in good condition.
Fall 2019: Board members resign
Unresolved debates concerning the needed repairs of Champlain Towers South triggered the resignations of five association members of the seven-member board. The association president was among those who departed.
April 2021: Special assessment proposed
A letter from the new association president to residents signaled that the structural problems had become very serious. The letter proposed a $15 million special assessment to begin fixing the damage.
June 24, 2021: Tower collapses
On June 24, one of the towers suddenly fell in the middle of the night while residents slept. Frantic rescue efforts ensured. On the same day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the scene a state of emergency.
June 25, 2021: Federal emergency declared
President Biden issued a federal emergency declaration and instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy resources to the scene.
June 26, 2021: Audits ordered
Mayor Cava of Miami-Dade County ordered audits of property records for all residential buildings five stories or more and 40 years old.
July 4, 2021: Demolition
Engineers set charges and demolished the remaining portions of the building to eliminate threats to rescue workers. The act meant a total loss of homes for surviving condo residents.
July 2021: Class action lawsuits (developing)
Starting on the day of the collapse, survivors and families of the deceased launched dozens of lawsuits seeking compensation for losses. The condo association has been named as the defendant and roughly $49 million in insurance coverage appears to be available. The lawsuits have been placed under the supervision of Miami Judge Hanzman, and the certification of a class action on behalf of victims appears likely.