MIAMI ( Associated Press) — A judge on Thursday gave final approval to a settlement of more than $1 billion for the victims of a condominium building collapse off the coast of Florida that killed 98 people in one of the deadliest building crashes in U.S. history.
Miami-Dade District Judge Michael Huntsman’s decision came a day before the anniversary of the Champlain Towers South disaster in the Miami suburb of Surfside. The judge praised the dozens of lawyers involved for preventing what could drag on for years of litigation with no sure outcome for the victims.
“It will never be enough to compensate them for the tragic loss they have suffered,” the judge said. “This settlement is the best we can do. This is a wonderful result. It’s unusual”.
The deal creates a $1.02 billion fund for people who have lost family members in the 12-story building’s collapse, as well as those who have been physically or mentally injured. Lawyers said another $200 million could be raised from the Champlain Towers condominium association itself, including insurance.
About $100 million has been earmarked for legal fees – a figure to be finalized in September – and $96 million has been earmarked for owners who have lost one of the building’s 136 apartments, based on the appraised value of each. They range from more expensive four-bedroom apartments with ocean views to cheaper one-bedroom apartments.
According to Huntsman, the process of determining the amount of claims for 98 dead and injured will be completed by August 26. Each person who filed a claim before July 18 is entitled to a private hearing by a judge, but this is not required.
The problem will be to figure out how much a life or injury is worth. A claim for compensation for loss of life usually involves several factors and may include, for example, the deceased’s potential lifetime income.
“My goal is to make it as painless as possible,” Huntsman said.
According to court-appointed trustee Michael Goldberg, none of the victims filed objections to the settlement agreement or opted to withdraw from it. Several people who have lost family members or property said in court on Thursday that they are grateful for the horrific experience to come to an end so quickly.
Raisa Rodriguez, who survived the collapse in a ninth-floor apartment that was originally left untouched, couldn’t help but praise the result.
“You have no idea what a relief this is for me personally,” said Rodriguez. “I am so exhausted. I just want it to be done. I want these souls to rest.”
The decision was made during a so-called fairness hearing, in which anyone with objections to the deal could raise them as the judge determined whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable and adequate,” according to court documents.
The money comes from 37 different sources, including insurance companies, engineering firms and a luxury condominium whose recent development next door is suspected of contributing to the structural damage to Champlain Towers South. Neither side pleads guilty.
A Dubai-based billionaire developer is set to purchase a 1.8-acre (1 hectare) waterfront property for $120 million to contribute to a settlement. The deal is expected to close by the end of July.
People could start receiving checks for their losses in September, the judge said.
Champlain Towers South has a long history of maintenance problems, and questions arose in the early 1980s about the quality of its original design and inspections. Other possible factors include sea level rise caused by climate change and damage caused by salt water intrusion.
The final conclusion about the cause, most likely, will be made in years. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is leading the federal investigation into the collapse, recently said invasive testing of material samples from the collapse site will begin soon.
The tests will help investigators find potential flaws in a building’s structural elements by examining things like materials’ density, porosity, and corrosion, NIST said.
Florida will require statewide recertification of condominiums over three stories high under new legislation Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last month in response to the disaster.
The death toll from the collapse of the Champlain Towers is one of the highest such disasters in US history. The Hyatt Regency footpath collapse in 1981 killed 114 people, and an 1860 Massachusetts factory accident killed between 88 and 145 workers.
Anderson contributed to this story from St. Petersburg, Florida.