Less than one day after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominiums in Surfside, Florida, the first lawsuit was filed. Two days after the tragic collapse, at least one law firm launched a “Florida Building Collapse” website. While we have our own thoughts about these efforts, our focus has been on early detection and prevention of these tragedies. We have been studying and writing about construction defects involving shoddy steel and concrete for years.
Despite the apparent rush to the courthouse in the Surfside case, none of the experts know yet the cause of the crash. In fact, the experts can’t even begin their work until rescue efforts are complete. It took the National Transportation Safety Board 18 months to complete its investigation of the 2018 collapse of the nearby FIU pedestrian bridge. While we don’t think victims need to wait that long before filing a lawsuit, we believe that there should be some investigation before racing to court.
In this post we discuss the common causes of building and structural collapses, how they can be prevented and what to do if you think there is a problem.
Typical Causes of a Building Collapse
Building and bridge collapses are caused by improper building materials (concrete and steel), poor maintenance and poor design. We will discuss each below.
Defective and Improper Building Materials
Except for residential construction, the typical structural components in a commercial or multifamily dwelling are steel and concrete. Any engineer or architect will tell you that not all steel and concrete is alike.
Without going into a technical recitation of grades and types of building materials, common types of concrete include:
- Plain or Ordinary concrete
- Reinforced concrete (rebar or glass reinforcements)
- Prestressed concrete
- Precast concrete
- Lightweight concrete (used in long bridge spans)
- High-Density concrete
- Air-Entrained Concrete (for use in cold weather where freezes are common)
- Ready-Mix concrete
- Volumetric concrete
- Rapid-Set concrete
- Smart concrete (used for early detection of structural flaws)
- Pervious concrete (contains no sand and has open pores to prevent water absorption)
- Pumped concrete
- Roll Compacted concrete (what you see on most highways)
- Shotcrete concrete
Each type has different durability, strength and workability characteristics.
Just like concrete, there are different types of steel including carbon steel and alloy steel. When you purchase steel for a commercial building project, it comes with a certificate that says where it was made. The certificate contains important information including chemical composition and how the steel was made. Architects and engineers have very specific requirements for the quality of steel used.
We got into this line of work years ago when a whistleblower alerted us that a company was substituting cheaper steel for use on an airport intermodal facility. The company thought it would be clever and purchased samples of steel from a U.S. mill simply to get the certificates of manufacture. The company then used cheaper foreign steel and kept the U.S. certificates in case someone inspected.
That practice not only violated the Buy American laws (government funded projects must be built with U.S. steel), it was also dangerous. The engineers and architects designing the project believed that one type of steel was being used when something of an unknown quality was instead being substituted.
Since then, we have seen several other cases of improper substitution of unknown quality materials.
Here are some more things to consider. Buildings on the coast are often subject to corrosive salt air. The salt can penetrate many types of concrete and cause support beams and rebar to rust from the inside out. More ominously, that decomposition process isn’t visible. Roads and bridges in many parts of the U.S are also subject to corrosion from salt applied to roadways during winter weather.
We don’t yet know what caused the building collapse at the condo complex in Surfside, no one does. (This post is written three days after the tragedy.) Could it be caused by poor building materials? Absolutely and a 2018 inspection noted dangerous signs of decay.
That is a segue to poor inspection and maintenance. Buildings don’t last forever. Foundations settle, seismic events occur (earthquakes, heavy traffic or nearby blasting) and water can take its toll. That means buildings need to be inspected often and properly. And when problems occur, they must be quickly addressed.
Poor design is also a frequent culprit. Unlike some lawyers that jumped the gun on the FIU bridge collapse, we waited. Our initial thought was bad concrete (steel wouldn’t deteriorate that fast) but we were wrong. The NTSB said there were major design flaws and the company hired to review the designs wasn’t even certified to do so.
All in all, the NTSB found a series of errors. And that brings up our final point. It is usually not one problem that causes a massive building to collapse without warning. Unless a giant sinkhole appeared under the Surfside condo (and those happen in Florida), we think there will be blame everywhere…
- The condo board for not taking prompt action
- Poor design ( apparently the floor wasn’t sloped allowing water to pool)
- Poor construction
- Improper concrete
- Too much seismic activity from nearby blasting
Who Is Liable When a Bridge or Building Collapses?
If you been carefully following this post, you probably know that the more than one party is frequently liable. Determining who is negligent can be a time consuming process. And the older the building or structure, the harder it becomes to get records.
Typically we look to the following groups of people when determining liability:
- Property owners
- Original developer of the building
- Major contractors and subcontractors
- Architects and engineers
- Persons who reviewed and approved the original building plans
- Building inspectors
- Material suppliers
Things You Can Do to Prevent a Building Collapse Tragedy
We won’t spend too much time on the obvious. Check your suppliers, make sure your architect, engineers and contractors are both qualified and bonded, get an independent inspection of the major components and materials used in the building process, inspect frequently and take care of all problems immediately.
We mention this last point because the condo HOA for Champlain Towers got a report of serious problems following an inspection in 2018. Repairs were finally being started three years later. We would say, three years too late.
Here is something else to ponder. Ironically, few developers and property owners get independent verification on the structural steel and concrete used in the building. We suspect that there is widespread use of substandard materials in building projects. We recently learned of a highway that was being constructed of substandard asphalt. It’s not uncommon for some vendors and contractors to cut corners.
All too often we rely on building inspectors to identify problems but they rarely if ever conduct tests on the concrete, steel and other building materials used in construction. Unless there is a visible indication that something is amiss, municipal building inspectors aren’t going to catch poor materials. And as to design, they usually rely on the project’s architect or engineer to certify the design is proper.
Filing a Construction Defect Claim
Many times a building owner will suspect that a contractor or vendor failed to properly design or build. A leaky roof or windows, doors that don’t shut properly, pooled water in basements, cracks in walls, exposed rebar or rust spots on concrete support beams, and spalling are all signs that major construction defects exist.
We can help you file a claim against the developer or your own insurer. It’s important to take action before matters get worse or a tragedy occurs.
Do you think you have a construction defect claim? Contact us before a tragedy strikes.
For more information, contact us online, at or by phone 202-800-9791. Cases handled nationwide. Most matters can be handled on a contingency fee basis.
Whistleblowers and Construction Defects
Under the federal False Claims Act, whistleblowers with information about construction defects in federally funded building and highway projects are eligible for large cash rewards. To qualify, you must have inside information about the fraudulent conduct and be the first to file.
Several states have their own whistleblower reward programs for state funded building and roadway projects.
For federally funded construction projects, the Buy America and Buy American laws require steel used in the construction come from the United States. Simply demonstrating that a vendor substituted foreign made steel can make you eligible for a reward.
The Mahany Law whistleblower lawyers have helped people collect over $100,000,000.00 in rewards. For more information on the Buy American whistleblower rewards, visit our Buy America / U.S. steel whistleblower reward pages. Ready to see if you qualify for a reward, see the contact information above. All inquiries will be kept strictly confidential.
*If you have information on a nongovernment funded project, we still want to hear from you. Even if there is no reward, it is better to help prevent a tragedy from occurring.