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As lawsuits in condo collapse pile up, lawyers urged to work for free

One attorney called the tragedy "Miami's 9/11," recalling when firms answered the appeal to provide pro bono services to victims of the Sept. 11 attack.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Attorneys lined up in a Miami courtroom Wednesday to volunteer to work for victims of the deadly building collapse, and by week's end, the number of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims and their families had piled up.

The documents filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court target any person or entity that might bear some responsibility for the deadly Champlain Towers South condo building collapse or have information that can explain its cause.

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the building's condo association. Most recently, one was filed Friday on behalf of a 15-year-old boy who survived "with devastating injuries" while his mother died. Some lawsuits name the city of Surfside, the engineering firms that inspected the building, the new development under construction next door and other entities, individuals and groups.

"There is no doubt that there's culpability. There is no doubt that there is unspeakable negligence," said lawyer Jorge Silva, who is representing wrongful death victims and condominium owners. "There is no doubt that this building was screaming for years that exactly this would ultimately happen."

Search and rescue team members dig through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condo building on Wednesday.Al Diaz / Miami Herald via AP

Silva filed a lawsuit on behalf of a client Thursday that named 15 defendants, and he said he was open to adding more.

"We are just in diapers here, and we will obviously take a lot of depositions," Silva said. "More importantly, in the initial stages, we will be seeking discovery of a lot of documents, and those documents may lead us in different directions to add other parties."

Newly hired attorneys are targeting the building's five insurers first. While two have already volunteered to pay out their policy limits of $3 million, attorneys for the victims said there is up to $48 million in insurance coverage yet to be processed.

That is only the beginning, and it won't be nearly enough to compensate the victims and their families, attorneys said. Some estimated the disaster could add up to more than $1 billion in damages.

The number has generated high interest in the legal community, as well as a push for lawyers to work pro bono for Surfside victims.

Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman told a gaggle of attorneys in his courtroom Wednesday that they would need to organize themselves because there were so many of them hoping to participate in the slew of litigation that will come from the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse.

“I got the best of the bar here, but not everybody can have a leadership role, and the faster you all realize that and try to reach some consensus, the faster we can move this along and try to get the victims some compensation,” Hanzman told the lawyers, adding that he hoped they would consider working for free.

Some of those attorneys, including Silva, are aiming to do that and ensure the victims get the legal aid and representation they need to navigate individual litigation, as well as potential class-action lawsuits.

Attorney Patrick Montoya is helping lead the charge in providing pro bono work and said he has had numerous conversations with lawyers about providing free legal work for victims' families.

Montoya said he saw this moment as "Miami's 9/11," recalling when his own firm rose to the appeal to provide free legal work to the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. He said this was a similar call to action, and he believed it was important to work to ensure nothing like this happened again.

It was also an opportunity to act as a check on individuals, businesses, corporations and developers that have allowed safety inspections to fall to the wayside.

"If you're negligent and not using reasonable care, this is what's going to happen," Montoya said. "You're going to have to pay."

Gonzalo and Maria Torre lived in Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., when the building collapsed. The couple's children said Gonzalo Torre's body had been recovered, but their mother's still had not been found.Courtesy Torre family

Montoya's clients, Eman Torre and Marixa Fusto, lost their older parents, Gonzalo and Maria Torre, in the collapse. They said they were thankful they were able to obtain pro bono legal work and said they hoped other attorneys would provide the same free service.

"We believe that through responsible litigation, we can help effect change in Florida's condominium rules and regulations to promote safety so that no family will ever have to live through what we have," the siblings said in a statement.

The timeline for litigation is long, and Torre and Fusto said they remained focused on the continued work at the site of their parents' former home. While their father's body has been recovered, search and rescue teams still have not found their mother.

"Our hearts remain broken," they said, while expressing gratitude to the search and rescue crews. "Until our mother is found and reunited with our father, we will have no peace."