“For the people who know me, and know how much I care about my clients, and how much time I take to navigate through these complex legal issues, it isn’t an issue of ‘we’re here to get a quick buck,’ or ‘we’re chasing easy money,’ or whatever the rumors are about our profession,” said Lea Bucciero of Podhurst Orseck in Miami.
September 08, 2023 at 10:49 AM, Mason Lawlor
Reflecting on the litigation that arose from one the deadliest structural engineering failures in history, an attorney who represented the victims of the Champlain Towers collapse said the experience had a profound impact on her.
In June 2021, the 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida, suddenly collapsed, leaving 98 people dead, several others injured, and countless others with permanent trauma. Ricardo Martinez and Lea Bucciero of Podhurst Orseck in Miami were named lead counsel in the wrongful death lawsuit following the incident.
The two worked together closely to lead proceedings in discovery, including liability depositions, demand letters, and finalizing settlement agreements with each defendant. The case swiftly resulted in a $1 billion settlement approved by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman in June 23, just one day before the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.
“This event was something that changed our community,” Bucciero told Law.com. “It really impacted the members of, especially, the Surfside community. Judge Hanzman, overseeing the case, really made it clear to us attorneys that we needed all hands on deck; it wasn’t going to be business-as-usual.”
The collapse is tied, with the Knickerbocker Theater collapse in 1922, for the third-deadliest non-deliberate structural engineering failure in history. The Champlain Towers project was the first new construction in Surfside after a moratorium on new development was imposed by Miami-Dade County to address water and sewer infrastructure issues.
“The emphasis was really getting to the bottom of this very complex case, in a way [that would result in] a very meaningful resolution for these families as quickly as possible,” she added. “Although they’re never made whole; they can never move on, but at least they can put the litigation behind them.”
Hanzman has also reflected on the intense nature of the case, calling it the most complicated case he’s handled across his 35-year career.
“The quality of the counsel on the defense side was of equal caliber to the quality of council on the plaintiff’s side,” Hanzman told Law.com last June. “The case involves both economic, personal injury and death claims and a highly-unusual occurrence, the cause of which will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ever pinpoint down. There were probably multiple contributing causes of this event from the evidence the court has seen.”
Bucciero said that, while some may see swift settlements as nothing more than examples of lawyers swooping in for a paycheck, this view minimizes the important role plaintiffs lawyers play in the wake of tragedies like Surfside.
“The victims never lose their voice, but you become an additional voice for them,” she said. “When you’re a personal injury attorney like I am, on behalf of victims, you really do become an advocate for your clients. You’re navigating through this extremely complex case and litigation, in a way that you’re always trying to keep their best interests at the forefront of it, keeping communication open with them, making sure they understand the process and what’s happening, and making sure you’re there for them when they need it.”
Bucciero added that plaintiffs attorneys also provide value beyond helping their clients recover monetary damages.
“We are one of the few professions that acts as a check in this checks-and-balances system,” she added. “We make buildings safer, for example; we make products safer; we make pharmaceuticals safer when we pursue those cases, because there’s a certain degree that we’re watching to make sure when people are committing wrongdoings that there’s some accountability for that.”
It’s for these reasons, Bucciero said, that the misperception of lawyers as vultures bothers her.
“For the people who know me, and know how much I care about my clients, and how much time I take to navigate through these complex legal issues, it isn’t an issue of ‘we’re here to get a quick buck,’ or ‘we’re chasing easy money,’ or whatever the rumors are about our profession,” she said.
And for Bucciero, there’s no denying the personal impact working on these cases like Surfside can have on an attorney.
She pointed to a particularly emotional hearing last June during which the loved ones of victims of the collapse shared their stories.
“That case changed the fabric of who I am. It changed who I am as a lawyer, as a wife, as a mother, as a member of this community, because you spend so much time invested in listening to the stories of what these families lost that day, in the middle of the night,” she said.