Judge: Broker will sort out claims in Florida apartment collapse

Hoping to avoid a long and bitter battle over victims’ money, a judge said Wednesday that a mediator will be appointed to sort through claims arising from the collapse of a Florida apartment complex that killed 98 people.

The intent is to reach an agreement on the distribution of money from the planned sale of the Champlain Towers South location in Surfside, Florida, as well as insurance payments and any court proceeds.

“I want to start this,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hansman said at a hearing. “The last thing I want to see is the victims fighting over the (money). That would be a shame.”

Several lawyers have compared Florida’s collapse to the difficult task of giving value to human lives against property losses and other claims after the September 11 terrorist attacks. This process, which was overseen by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, Now the Netflix movie “Worth” stars Michael Keaton as Feinberg and is based on Feinberg’s own book.

“What is the value of life?” Keaton, says Feinberg, in an early scene. “The answer is a number. And that is the job.”

The 12-storey Champlain Towers South beachfront complex collapsed without warning in the early hours of June 24, burying victims and property in a tangled pile of rubble. The cause has yet to be determined, but the building required millions of dollars in significant structural repairs before it fell.

The site, which is just under 2 acres (0.8 ha), is already under a $120 million sales contract. The property will be put up for auction to see if there are other interested buyers who might pay more.

However, there will likely not be enough to fully compensate everyone for their losses. The lawyers said the mediator, once appointed, would be tasked with reaching an agreement that was fair to all victims.

“We will work very hard to get it done,” said Ricardo Martinez Seid, one of the lawyers representing victims of wrongful death. “I hope this is in the interest of all victims.”

Hansmann said he was calling the attorney in Miami, Bruce W. Jarir, who has extensive brokerage experience, to handle the matter. Greer did not immediately respond on Wednesday to an email asking her if he would accept.

“It’s going to take a long, hard time,” Hansmann said. “This is one of those situations where there will be a middle ground.”

One outcome that all parties hope to avoid is asking apartment owners to pay an appraisal to cover claims in excess of available funds through property sale payments, insurance or lawsuits. Michael Goldberg, one of the court-appointed recipients, said Florida law appears to provide, but it’s unclear whether it applies to this disaster.

“It might apply. I’m not entirely sure,” Goldberg said. “If it were applied, it could have a huge impact.”

Another potential source of money is from state or federal governments. Talks are ongoing on issues such as exemption from property taxes, mortgages and other forms of compensation.

Hansmann reiterated that victims’ claims are likely to far exceed the amount of money available.

“These people will be left with significant shortcomings,” the judge said, adding that he wanted to avoid a protracted legal battle. “Anyone who has suffered a loss here is a victim. Everyone will have the right to have their voice heard.”

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