Surfside collapse trial delayed to March 2023

Defense attorneys pushed for delay, citing longer investigations from experts

Judge Michael Hanzman and the Surfside condo collapse site (Getty, iStock)
Judge Michael Hanzman and the Surfside condo collapse site (Getty, iStock)

The Surfside condo collapse trial was delayed by about six months to March 2023, despite an ongoing court push to bring justice to the victims as quickly as possible.

Attorneys for the defendants – including the development team of neighboring condo tower Eighty Seven Park – argued that they need more time for their experts to complete their investigations into the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South. The property is still set to be auctioned later this year.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman, who had been pressing for a trial this summer or fall, acquiesced to the defense attorneys’ push for more time, but warned further delays won’t be easy to wring from the court.

“This trial is not being continued until September 2023. If you are all working under that illusion, and that is the only timetable your experts can meet, I strongly suggest you go out and get additional experts. Because that is not happening,” Hanzman said at a Wednesday status conference on the litigation. “That is a firm deadline, ladies and gentlemen. So do not bank on any continuances whatsoever.”

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Hanzman said the victims, “many of whom are survivors and elderly, have a right to their case proceeding to trial expeditiously.” Although he said he is not entirely convinced the delay is necessary, he added that he recognized the need to allow proper due diligence for both sides.

The second amended complaint filed in November, on behalf of survivors and families who lost loved ones, against the Eighty Seven Park development team, largely placed the blame on the construction of the luxury condo next door for leading to the collapse. The suit alleges unsafe practices such as sheet pile driving that caused dangerous vibrations and construction of a public walkway between the two buildings that led to water seeping toward Champlain Towers South.

David Weinstein, a Greenberg Traurig attorney for 8701 Collins Development LLC, said at the Wednesday hearing that five experts from three firms for the various defendants agreed that testing and modeling can be done by December of this year. But experts disagreed how long the process would take after that, as some argued they would need follow-up tests before issuing their reports.

Only one opportunity exists to do the investigation because the off-site evidence, consisting of remains of the building stored in a warehouse, would be spoiled once the National Institute of Standards and Technology does its own testing, and the Champlain Towers South property will be redeveloped, Weinstein said. Also, determining the cause of the collapse is vital because Champlain Towers North and East were developed by the same team that built the South tower and because there are many other oceanfront buildings over 40 years old, Weinstein said.

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Damac Properties, a Dubai-based company, submitted the $120 million stalking horse bid and is in its due diligence period. Others can bid for the property when it goes to auction.

In response to Hanzman’s pushback, saying plaintiffs’ experts have said they can be ready in time for a trial this year, another defense attorney raised questions of these professionals’ thoroughness.

“I don’t know, did they come up with this schedule because they have to meet a September trial date?” Michael DeChiara said. “I don’t know how thorough they choose to be or they care to be. They are going to throw a theory up and if they hit on it, they hit on it.”

To suggest that the investigators on behalf of the victims won’t be detailed “and throw things up against the wall is a bit disingenuous,” Hanzman responded to DeChiara.

Other possible delays could be accessing the building remains stored off-site under Miami-Dade County’s care. An attorney for the county said Miami-Dade and NIST plan to complete their own examinations before the experts are brought in as part of the litigation.

Attorney Michael Thomas, also representing 8701 Collins Development, Terra and Terra World Investments, said the proposed schedule for depositions set by the plaintiffs, which called for four days of depositions for three weeks out of each month of depositions, was “impractical.”

“There’s just no breathing room at all,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, the court was updated on the ongoing mediation on how funds from the property sale and insurance proceeds will be divided between survivors who lost property and families of those who died. An in-person mediation is planned for Feb. 4 in front of mediator Bruce Greer.

The defendants in the second amended complaint are Terra Group, 8701 Collins Development LLC, Terra World Investments, Eighty Seven Park general contractor John Moriarty, geotechnical engineer NV5 and structural engineer DeSimone. The Champlain Towers South association, its law firm Becker & Poliakoff and its 40-year recertification engineer Morabito Consultants also were sued. They filed their responses in court in December.

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