Are condo board members legally liable for structural collapse? (See: Champlain Towers in Florida which collapsed)

Condos have a governing body which is responsible for the maintenance and care of the building.

Champlain Towers in Florida collapsed.

Are the board members liable for that (to some degree)? I get they have a lot of legal protection here (and they should) but if they were less than zealous or negligent in seeing to the well-being of the building can they get in trouble for that?

(Writing from a completely different jurisdiction so don’t necessarily trust me) Unless they did / didn’t do something clearly indicated by a engineering report or something else raising concerns about the structural integrity of the building, it is hard to see how they would have taken on that legal responsibility simply by being owners of part of the asset. All boards / committees I have been on restrict legal liability to actions or decisions taken as a board member, which can be defined in law or practice.

If you bought into the complex, as due diligence you would have been sensible to ask for copies of any documents that indicated potential future costs. If there were such documents indicating engineering issues, and they were not passed on, that would be an additional avenue of legal exposure for board members.

Like Banksiaman, I’m in a different jurisdiction, so anything I say is very general in nature. The details of liability will depend largely on Florida state law, which I don’t know anything about. Don’t know if there is any federal law issue that may come up.

That said, the general rule is that a person can be sued in different “capacities”. If you’re on a board of directors of a company, and something the company has done has triggered litigation, you can be sued in your capacity as a director, along with the company. The reason for this is that the board of directors is the “operating mind” of the company, and can be called to account for the decisions of the company. Directors carry directors’ liability insurance for that reason, in addition to the insurance carried by the company, to cover personal liability for decisions they made as the operating mind.

There is also “personal capacity” - a person can be sued in their personal capacity, if something they have done was to benefit themselves personally, to the detriment of others. For example, purely hypothetical, suppose a director suppressed an adverse engineering report about the state of the building, because that director was in the process of selling their condo and wanted the best price possible. If an adverse report was made public, it could depress prices or even scare away buyers entirely. If a director suppressed the report for that reason, to protect their own investment, that could trigger personal liability, separate from liability as a board member. That wouldn’t be covered by directors insurance. (And again, this is purely hypothetical, to illustrate the discussion of how the law works. I’ve not seen any suggestion that any of the directors of the Florida condo did anything like that.)

The reason for the legal recognition of different capacities is to recognise that if a person was personally responsible for everything done by the condo board they sat on, that would scare away anyone from being a director. Some limits on personal liability are necessary to make companies and associations workable, so instead a director can be liable for actions taken as a director, which is a collective decision-making process and which can be covered by insurance, but not neccessarily in their personal capacity.

Relevant article I linked to on another thread:


It is well established in Florida that absent fraud, self-dealing and betrayal of trust, directors of condominium associations are not personally liable for the decisions they make intheir capacity as directors of condominium associations.

Thanks for that. Interesting. As stated above, I would naturally defer to someone knowledgeable in Florida law.

In a word: no.

Once again, speaking from a different jurisdiction, but a lot of the statutes relating to condos come out of Florida. IIRC Florida was the first place in the US (other than Puerto Rico) to authorize condominium ownership.

I was the president of a condo board (building same age as Champlain South) that was sued, and I was even deposed before a settlement was reached, over serious water damage to a ground-floor retail shop. In Illinois, the standard to which condo board members are held is the “business judgment” standard. We’re not responsible for making the right decision in every case; only that the decision could be considered sound business judgment. That judgment might include considering things like the state of the reserves, needing to get further bids, relying on outside advisors, etc. There’s a lot of leeway before getting to the point of liability for such a catastrophe unless it was clearly foreseeable and imminent.

The condominium association is a not-for-profit corporation, similar to other corporations in that the shareholders and directors are specifically not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation. Condo boards typically carry directors & officers liability insurance, but it’s primarily to pay for attorneys to go to court to point out that they can’t be held liable unless they’ve done something quite egregious.

I would like to broaden the question to who exactly is liable in this situation? While the builder and architect come to mind, it has been 40 years since the building was built.

It could be that no liability will attach in the end.

Though the cost of defending against lawsuits over such a large tragedy will often lead insurance companies to pay settlement amounts (without admitting liability)—there may not be any conduct here that amounts to negligence. If it was a sinkhole, hard to see where liability can attach. If it was the slow action of rust on rebar, it could be that no one has done anything so wrong that our legal system feels they should pay. Architect, contractor, inspectors would only be liable if they’d done something very wrong and foreseeable—and in any case may no longer exist as entities with any assets. The county (responsible for inspection) has sovereign immunity unless something really bad can be proven. The condo board and association were taking action, albeit somewhat slowly (but still within reasonable “business judgment” bounds), when events tragically overtook them.

I was watching some video from structural engineers guessing at the issues here and they noted that the tower that remained standing had thicker columns than the ones that fell. No one had an explanation for that. Why more sturdy support beams on one building and not another in the same structure (understanding they were kinda separate structures that were connected as a whole which is why it collapsed as it did)?

I have no idea if that is enough to attach liability but it seems like a contractor saving some money. But then building inspectors apparently never flagged it so…

I dunno. Without some clear line of corruption to go cheap on construction and not build to spec I am not sure what can be done here. Likely any building inspector from 40 years ago is an old person now and retired. It will be hard to connect any dots.

Somewhere in the MPSIMS thread is a discussion of limitation periods. It looks like actions against the architect, construction firms, and so on would be statute-barred.

For different loads. One part may have had a broad side to the prevailing ocean winds, or was in a tower shape more prone to torsion or racking.

In the late 1970s, computer-aided structural analysis was still in its infancy. Buildings like Champlain Towers (and my own Chicago highrise) were designed using tried-and-true formulas for the thickness of column needed for certain gravity loads, certain live loads, certain wind loads. If the architect wanted floorplates other than rectangular, or desired to move columns a few feet one way or another (or make them flat and narrow rather than square) to allow more desirable floor plans, that was typically handled by just oversizing the columns to have a margin of safety. The extra concrete was much less costly than the computations needed to size the structure to be just sufficient. Today, innovative shapes such as twisting towers can be engineered and calculated with much less excess use of material.

Perhaps we will learn that some computation was done wrong in designing a portion of the building, and the columns were undersized or had insufficient connections to the floor slabs they supported, but I doubt it. Because of the big margin of safety in such designs, any such construction would just look wrong to anyone experienced with these things, and to any inspector looking at the plans or construction progress. We’ve been building reinforced concrete highrises for a century now. When this went up, Dade County already had probably 2000 buildings of this general type.

After the initial collapse dominated the news for a few days I’ve not seen much at all on the investigation. Speculating for a moment that the collapse was some geotechnical failure. I’m sure that once the remains are cleared away there will be a lot of detailed checking any water pipes and other utilities that may have leaked over the years and caused scouring or other problems for the foundations that would have passed unnoticed if you hadn’t built a huge building on top of them.

With reference to the OP, the board would presumably be in the clear since they were not psychic and the engineer / architect / builder could have done everything meticulously. In this hypothetical it might be that it was a landowner two blocks back who never noticed they had a leaking sewer main.

You may see no one held legally liable, but possibly a change in building codes to avoid the same issues occurring in new buildings, or the city [?county] being forced into a program of checking and replacing old utilities.

I wonder how it figures legally, that the people suing would be the same people (or their heirs) who had deferred doing the required maintenance for several years. The $15M price tag worked out to a $100,000 extra assessment for each condo, roughly - and one article I read said condos in Florida did not need to maintain a contingency fund. The condo board had been working on this since 2017 or earlier.

So presumably one defense argument in any lawsuit would be “we told you we need to do it, and you chose to delay. You can’t sue us now for your own delay.”

I guess the question too would be - can one owner who had voted for repairs sue the other owners who voted against the immediate expenditure?

Under what legal theory?

“This work needs to be done” is not the same thing as “the building will collapse soon if you don’t do this work.” Under our legal system—thank goodness—we (generally) only punish or penalize people who’ve done something (or failed to do something) with foreseeable consequences.

That seems pretty farfetched. A building like this would have one water pipe in from the street and one sewer line out to the street. Being Florida, those would probably be 6 to 8 feet below the ground. The building, on the other hand, will be supported on a dozen or more piers extending down to limestone, probably 40-60 feet below the ground, which are tied together at ground level by a big slab.

The problem is the legal system allows for all sorts of obfuscation.

It is highly unlikely any engineering firm will say your building WILL collapse, everyone needs to run.

They will issue a report. The building may ask for second study. Then ask their attorneys. Then talk to the city. Then talk to engineering firms again. Then talk to their residents. Then back to their attorneys.

Now several years have passed and who is at fault?

I live in a hi-rise. I get it. Shit like this goes on all the time. Fortunately my HOA is aggressive about maintaining the building in good shape and spends the money when needed. But obviously that is not always the case.

As much as I hate to say it I think the onus has to be on the residents and the HOA. Assuming the HOA did its job then it is on the residents to see to it that the building stays in good repair (read: spend the money to keep it in good repair). If the HOA hid that or neglected their duties to see to the maintenance of the building then it is on them.

Thanks for that context. The nearest example we had with a major landslide at the Thredbo Ski Resort which flattened two ski lodges and killed 18 people. The landslide was caused by a bunch of converging factors, one of which was the continued use of what was basically a temporary haul road built 20 years earlier as the major access road, and a faulty water pipe causing its instability. As it was within a national park the state accepted liability.

I’m curious…

If an HOA board member learns about a major upcoming expense to the building and sells their place before it is made public is that ok? Or are they breaking the law?

I don’t think they would be breaking a law, but they would be required to disclose the upcoming expense to a potential buyer so might be civilly liable if they don’t.

Unlikely, but not impossible. There is this famous case of the Citicorp building:

Although they did not evacuate the area, they did make plans for it. And they instituted repairs in secret almost as quickly as they could.

In this case, it helped that it was the chief engineer of the firm that built it that discovered the error (actually it was an engineering student that tipped him off, but it took more work to actually prove it). And it was only a year after being built, not 40.

As I understand it… The Board would bring forward a report that the building is urgently in need of repairs. The complete body of condo owners vote on it. A large number decide to vote “no” because they don’t want to shell out $100,000 and in a move reminiscent of the best of civil service tactics, decide instead to have the board study the problem some more.

A number of the owners, it was suggested, were absentee landlords at no risk to their person; others were retired people with no contingency funds themselves, or people who planned to sell and move before the need to spend became more urgent. They simply wanted to delay.

I suppose in any lawsuit, you are right, the key question the jury would have to decide is “was this foreseeable?” And in any future disputes over other buildings, this tragedy has made it a reasonably foreseeable consequence.