Before the Champlain Towers pancaked in June and killed 98 people, South Florida's deadliest structural failure was the Florida International Univerity (FIU) bridge collapse on March 15, 2018, which killed six people who happened to be driving their cars on SW Eighth Street when the entire bridge fell owing to major design flaws.
Whereas the other defendants in the litigation that followed the FIU bridge collapse — general contractor Magnum Construction Company (MCM) and lead engineers FIGG Bridge Group — settled with victims' families for $103 million in December 2019, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer D. Bailey ruled last week that the family of victim Brandon Brownfield may now seek punitive damages against the only remaining defendant: Louis Berger, the New Jersey-based engineering company that had been hired to review the design plans and approved them.
"[Louis Berger] should be punished not just with compensatory damages, but with punitive damages, so no other out-of-town engineering firm comes in and does a half-assed peer review that endangers lives," Paul Layne, lead attorney for the Brownfield family, of Silva & Silva law firm, tells New Times.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed FIGG for design errors. FIGG pointed the finger at MCM contractors for faulty construction. FIGG had hired Louis Berger to review the plans, and NTSB investigators found that Louis Berger failed to detect the flaws.
Louis Berger declined to settle.
Whereas compensatory damages are awarded to victims or their surviving families to repay them for funeral costs, lost wages, and suffering, punitive damages are only appropriate when a judge determines that a defendant's actions are alleged to be so reckless or criminal that the defendant should be punished for the wrongdoing. (The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office still hasn't finished its investigation to determine whether it will bring criminal manslaughter charges against individuals from the various companies overseeing the bridge's construction.)
When she granted Layne's motion to seek punitive damages against Louis Berger, Judge Bailey said that, based on the facts presented in the case, Louis Berger's actions rose to the level of "reckless indifference to the rights of others" when it approved the plans for the bridge despite the fact that the firm knew it was not qualified to do so in Florida, and that according to court testimony, its lead engineer hadn't bothered to review important parts of the structural plans before signing off on them. Finally, only one person reviewed the plans for the blueprints of a 950-ton span set to be constructed over a major roadway.
"Defendants either acted with actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct," Judge Bailey stated in the ruling, "or was so reckless in their behavior that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to the conduct."
Chelsea Brownfield, Brandon Brownfield's widow, declined to comment for this story through her attorney.
Attorneys for Louis Berger did not respond to emails and a phone call from New Times requesting comment.
The trial is set for January 10, 2022.
In addition to the victims of the FIU bridge collapse, the Silva & Silva law firm is also handling multiple lawsuits against the Champlain Towers condo association brought by survivors and victims' families.
Jorge Silva, a partner at Silva & Silva, tells New Times that while the bridge collapse and the condo collapse cases are very different, there are certain parallels that will cause what happens in the bridge trial to strongly influence the litigation over the Surfside tragedy.
"The engineering issues are actually very analogous in both cases," Silva explains. "There were issues with design and inspections that are also analogous."
Silva says he's been able to borrow insights from the bridge case and bring them over to the Champlain scenario, including Judge Bailey's recent ruling allowing a motion for punitive damages.
It's still too early to determine whether the defendants' actions in the Champlain Towers cases will rise to the level that would warrant punitive damages. But Silva predicts the outcome regarding the actions of Louis Berger will serve as a bellwether.
"We believe many of the decisions in the FIU bridge case, as the judge pointed out, were driven by finances," he says. "A lot of that is true in Champlain: Corners were cut, decisions were made based on looking at one's pocket without taking into consideration life."