Bill limiting construction-defect lawsuits grows a little friendlier to homeowners

Deadline getting shorter, but not as short as first planned

By: - February 11, 2022 9:37 am

Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside, partially collapsed on June 24, 2021. A controlled demolition took down the rest of the structure on July 4, 2021. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Florida Senate has advanced a watered-down version of legislation shortening the deadline for homeowners to bring lawsuits over construction defects in single-family and multi-family residences, like the ones blamed in part in the Surfside condo disaster last summer.

The bill (SB 736) addresses Florida’s “statute of repose,” similar to a statute of limitations in criminal trials, which provides a window in time in which an aggrieved homeowner can file suit. Under existing law, that adds up to 10 years. An earlier version of the bill would have cut that time in half.

But the Senate on Thursday adopted an amendment that sets the time at seven years for latent defects. The next step is a floor vote on final passage. Similar legislation (HB 586) is pending before the House Judiciary Committee.

The measure follows the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, which killed 98 people. A Miami-Dade County grand jury blamed factors including known structural damage, plus flaws in design and construction.

Family members of Surfside victims testified against the bill in committee, but no reference was made to the disaster during Thursday’s Senate floor debate.

Separated legislation (SB 1702), pending in both chambers, would require periodic “milestone” inspections of tall building in hopes of spotting and fixing problems before they result in tragedy. More than half a million multi-story buildings in Florida are between 40 and 50 years old and more than 100 are older than that.

Proponents of SB 736, including Associated General Contractors and Florida Homebuilders Association, hope the measure will restrain insurance costs for builders and subcontractors and reduce the frequency of litigation. The sponsor is Travis Hutson, a Republican developer who represents Flagler, St. Johns, and part of Volusia counties.

Other than simple construction claims, owners of single-family homes could have up to 10 years to sue if they can provide evidence anyone involved in the construction fraudulently concealed a defect. The period for fraud lawsuits involving multi-family residents is unlimited, although any lawsuit has to begin within one year after the discovery of a defect.

The amended bill defines “single-family” residence as a structure not exceeding three above-ground stories that can house as many as three families.

The bill allows builders to offer to repair or otherwise settle claims, but Hutson said plaintiffs’ attorneys are encouraging foregoing repair offers in favor of cash settlements. Insurers find it cheaper to settle.

Sen. Audrey Gibson of Duval County asked whether Hutson had data documenting that trend.

He did not, he conceded — only anecdotal evidence.

“It’s very similar to what we saw in the roofing business,” Hutson said, “where people were coming out saying, ‘We can get you a free roof if only you sign here and we’ll say there’s hail damage.’ It’s now moved into the actual building world, and it’s a problem we’re trying to get ahead of.”

Sen. Lori Berman of Palm Beach County worried that homeowners would “be stuck holding the bag” for construction defects. She cited problems with Chinese drywall, used extensively during the 2000s but later found to emit noxious gasses that damaged people’s health as well as copper piping and electric lines.

Hutson replied that they’d still have seven years to bring claim — and that, if they can demonstrate fraud, they’d have the full 10 years.

He added that Florida has rewritten its building codes, which now rank among the “strongest … in the nation.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.