Following Surfside tragedy: ‘Why are we punishing homeowners who are completely innocent?’

Proponents of legislation in 2022 session would protect builders from frivolous lawsuits

By: - January 13, 2022 11:51 am

The ruins of Champlain Towers South, in Surfside, FL. This is the part left standing after the adjacent section collapsed. Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images, June 24, 2021

In the wake of the deadly collapse of a South Florida condominium in Surfside in June, lawmakers in Tallahassee this week are pursuing legislation to protect builders from frivolous lawsuits.

But Rick Nutter, speaking for the Florida Homeowners Association, complained the bill does not protect homeowners.

The bill “will essentially make Florida the least consumer-friendly state in the nation, with this type of five-year bar that will absolutely prohibit a homeowner from any recourse on what’s typically their largest investment,” Nutter said.

The original bill, SB 736, is named “construction defect claims.”  The legislation addresses single-family homes, condos and commercial buildings across the state. It’s not specific to the collapse of Champlain Towers South, in Surfside.

A state Senate committee voted Wednesday to limit homeowners’ ability to hold builders liable for “latent defects” in their homes. The bill has more steps to go to get full approval from the House and Senate.

Proponents said the legislation would protect builders from frivolous lawsuits and help hold down their insurance costs.

But two senators on the panel, representing districts near the Dade County disaster site, voted against the bill, saying it will hurt homeowners who have no way of knowing about defects hidden in their homes within a proposed five-year window, which is included in the bill.

The brother of a victim of the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24 pleaded with the senators to kill the bill.

“It is with great disappointment and sadness that I need to constantly fly here because millions of innocent property owners and tenants will be facing inevitable, life-threatening safety risks which could be avoided,” said Martin Langesfeld in testimony before the vote on Wednesday.

“I speak on behalf of countless voiceless professionals, politicians, entrepreneurs, and teachers and many other faultless loved ones which were killed in the place they called home: Champlain Towers South in Surfside Fla. Of those, my sister, Nicole Langesfeld, and Luis Sadovnic [her husband].”

Ninety-eight people were killed that day, when the 12-story oceanfront condo, owned by the people who lived in it, collapsed in the night. A Miami-Dade County grand jury report cites numerous contributing factors, including known structural damage in its lower floors that was overdue for repairs, concussion from construction work nearby, possible flaws in design and/or construction, and even climate-related sea-level rise causing corrosive intrusion of salt air and sea water below ground level.

Survivors have filed a class-action lawsuit.

Langesfeld said the proposal, Senate Bill 736, sponsored by Palm Coast Republican Travis Hutson, would shift responsibility for correcting latent, or long-term, defects from builders to homeowners. A key piece of the bill reduces the statute of repose, much like a statute of limitations, for filing litigation over latent defects from 10 years to as little as five.

“After such a horrific tragedy, we expect proposed bills that do the exact opposite of Senate Bill 736,” he continued. “The only ones benefiting from this bill are developers and insurance companies. There is no benefit to the everyday property owner and tenants, only a safety risk. … Instead of dropping accountability from 10 years, why don’t we instead work together and raise accountability so it doesn’t occur again?”

Proponents, including Associated General Contractors and Florida Homebuilders Association, said the bill can help keep a lid on insurance costs for builders and subcontractors and reduce the frequency of litigation.

“Everyone admits there’s a problem with construction defects. How do we address the problem, that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now,” Hutson said. “We’re having problems with skyrocketing insurance, we’re having subs [subcontractors] that can’t get insurance. It’s been a nightmare for Floridians, for builders, for some folks on the FJA side.”

The FJA, or Florida Justice Association, is an association of lawyers who represent consumers in liability cases against corporations and industries.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the homeowners are protected from anyone that does anything wrong, builder-wise, but at the same time, we’re not going to see tons of lawsuits going throughout an entire association when some people have no merit or basis in the lawsuit,” Hutson said.

The statute of repose in his bill would establish tiers, from a five-year deadline on single-family homes to 10 years on condos and commercial properties.

Nutter, from the Florida Homeowners Association, said,  “What the amendment (the bill as amended)  is doing is establishing the five-year repose period, even for hidden defects, which in the vast majority of cases are not going to manifest within five years.”

Such latent defects include faulty foundations, faulty structural components in attics and load-bearing walls, defects that lead to wood rot in wall cavities, and defective slabs, Nutter said.

Neil O’Brien, speaking Wednesday for the Florida Justice Association, piled on.

“This bill, in light of Surfside, rewards bad actors,” O’Brien said.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward County Democrat, and Sen. Tina Polsky, a Palm Beach County Democrat, voted against Hutson’s bill. Farmer questioned the severity of the insurance-rates crisis as described Wednesday.

“We can deal with insurance issues [separately] if they really exist,” Farmer said.

But he could not support the concept of reducing homeowners’ ability to hold builders liable for latent defects they caused.

“It’s not often as severe as Surfside — that’s the worst possible scenario — but why are we protecting people who do this, hide this, and why are we punishing homeowners who are completely innocent? They didn’t know. That’s why it’s a ‘latent’ defect,” Farmer said.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.