The judge handling lawsuits involving the Champlain Towers South collapse laid down the law Wednesday for lawyers: the cases are going to move fast and the lawyers are not going to get paid anything like they’re used to getting for personal injury cases.
In nearly 50 years of practice, famed personal injury attorney Willie Gary has never seen anything quite like the litigation surrounding the condominium collapse.
"No case is a good case," he said, "surely a major, major sad case here."
That pain evident in the voice of the lawyer – the receiver - appointed to take over for the association in court and get as much money as possible for the victims.
"It's kind of amazing how life works. People happened to sleep out of the building that night. You hear from them and then you hear the unfortunate stories of people that just happened to be there that night visiting. It’s very sad. It’s going to be a difficult case for all of us," said the court-appointed receiver, Michael Goldberg.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman interjected, "Yes, it's going to be a very difficult assignment. It’s a heart-wrenching, horrific case."
One the judge vows will move quickly.
Surfside Condo Collapse
Complete coverage of the Surfside Condo Collapse
Dozens of lawsuits have already been filed and he gave lawyers until Friday to decide which of them will be named to two leadership teams that will handle the two cases into which he will consolidate all claims: one for tangible economic losses, the other for wrongful death and personal injuries.
"The court wants to monetize whatever property is available so we can get money in the hands of these victims as soon as possible," he said.
And that means the oceanfront lot, which some have suggested to the receiver could be worth $100 million, will likely not be turned into a memorial, as some victims and their families have suggested.
"The court is sympathetic to that," the judge said, "but I want to make it very clear that the victims of this tragedy are not going to be sacrificing their funds and their property for memorial."
All four of the condo association’s liability insurers have already pledged to turn over full policy limits — $18.3 million — while negotiations continue with Great American Insurance Co., which sold the association $30 million in property coverage, Goldman said.
Even adding that to a potential windfall from an auction of the oceanfront lot, the judge said, "This is obviously a case where no amount of money could possibly be available to compensate these families for their suffering or their loss... There’s no amount of money in the world that could do that."
As part of Hanzman's efforts to get as much money as possible to the victims, he said lawyers will surrender their right to fees and percentages of the recovery, just getting reimbursed for costs, at least for now.
"If you don’t want those terms and you’re not willing to look at this case as public service and donate your time with the risk of not being paid … then don't come to the party, okay?" the judge said.
It was a message Gary and the dozens of other attorneys received and, in Gary's case, welcomed, saying, "It’s not about the money at all. The judge made that clear."
His co-counsel, Marwan Porter, agreed.
"The judge wants to expedite this for the families to make sure there's recovery quickly for the families," Porter said, noting, "lives have been torn up."
Hanzman urged the receiver to move quickly to sell the land, using what is called a "stalking horse" bid process, where a potential buyer is identified and a contract is entered into at an agreed upon price.
But then others will have an opportunity to bid higher in an auction process.
The proceeds will then go into the pool used to pay the victims or their estates, as well as the costs of the receivership and other expenses determined by the judge.
The judge allowed $2.4 million to be repaid to the owners of units that prepaid a special assessment for concrete restoration and other work that was being bid out even as the building collapsed, as well as about $58,000 to be spent on the association's three employees.
Universal Property and Casualty revealed it had insured 42 of the building's 136 units and paid about $4 million to 28 unit owners so far. The other 14 were either deceased or could not be located and the company said it would turn over the $1.2 million owed those clients to the receiver for distribution when possible.
As for attorneys fees, Hanzman said he was not going to let them deplete the limited resources available to victims and commended those who "have stepped up" to "donate their time and services."
They will be reimbursed for costs, the judge said. And if there is a recovery those lawyers are responsible for, they could submit a bill for time expended on that effort at their regular rates. But that money would only come from a recovery generated as a result of the attorneys' efforts -- not tendered insurance policies or the land sale -- and even then it is not guaranteed, he said.
He also warned attorneys not to overreach in seeking possible defendants, saying he would not tolerate "dubious, weak and Hail Mary claims."