(CN) — Florida condominium regulations are under scrutiny in the wake of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, as the tragedy has shaken confidence in high-rise safety across the state and prompted calls for reform in the upcoming legislative session.
As of Friday afternoon, 78 victims of the collapse have been confirmed dead, while more than 60 people remain unaccounted for. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava this week acknowledged that first responders had transitioned from a search for potential survivors to a recovery effort focused on retrieving victims' remains.
Though the investigation into the cause of collapse is in the early stage, it's evident that Champlain Towers South had significant structural defects that were decades in the making. In advance of the building's 40-year recertification, a 2018 engineering report noted extensive deterioration of a concrete structural slab near the pool deck and warned that the damage would expand exponentially if not repaired.
The report traced the damage back to a "major error" in the construction of the building, namely a lack of sloping for water to drain.
Advocates for Florida condo law reform argue that the collapse exposed how structural defects in condominiums can be neglected for years under the current regulatory framework, necessitating huge repair projects that some unit owners would rather put off than pay for. The long delay in diagnosing the extent of concrete deterioration at Champlain Towers South was symptomatic of shortcomings in Florida condo regulation, they say.
In an interview, longtime construction-defect litigator Joel Kenwood said that many condo associations will not take on the cost of a full-fledged structural inspection unless it is required by law. Because building deficiencies can remain hidden or appear as cosmetic damage to the untrained eye, condo boards commonly go years on end without realizing the need for a structural evaluation.
According to Kenwood, comprehensive condo inspections should be required on a periodic basis statewide – and time limits on developer liability should be extended so that when a major deficiency in the initial design or construction of a condo is discovered, the financial burden does not fall on unit owners.
"It's sort of a double-edged sword. You have [statutes] that limit the amount of years you have to sue a developer for structural and design defects. And then you have the problem with the maintenance not being done in terms of having a structural engineer check out the building," Kenwood said.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Florida's two most populous, mandate recertification of buildings once they turn 40 years old. Countless other communities across the state, including the neighboring county of Palm Beach, lack that review process, however.
"The alternative is to require mandatory structural checks every 10 or 20 years. Forty years is a long time, especially if a building's on the beach, where you have the corrosion from the saltwater and salty air," Kenwood said.
Still, a mandatory 10-year inspection period – one of the more proactive regulatory measures proposed in the wake of the collapse – would not necessarily protect Florida condo owners from massive repair bills if an inspection turns up a long-hidden deficiency.
That's because the deadline to sue a developer for a latent defect was reduced from 15 years to 10 years after construction, thanks to a shift Florida law dating back to 2006. Under state law, developers' liability moreover ends four years after a latent defect is discovered or "should have been discovered."
Kenwood said the time limits on liability create an environment where developers and contractors operate without fear of future accountability for shoddy construction. But the chances of getting the Florida Senate or House of Representatives to push back the statute of limitations are slim, he said.