Mediator to Sort Through Millions of Dollars for Families of 98 Surfside Victims

A judge decided Wednesday to appoint a mediator to sort through the millions of dollars that will be allocated to families of those killed in the Surfside building collapse in Florida, the Associated Press reported.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman made the decision to prevent battles among the 98 victims' families over claims.

"I want to get this started," Hanzman said at a hearing. "The last thing I want to see is victims fighting over the [money] allocation. That would be a shame."

The Champlain Towers South condominium partially collapsed early in the morning on June 24, leaving residents and property underneath piles of rubble and debris. The cause of the collapse has yet to be confirmed, but the building was in need of structural repairs costing millions before the disaster, the AP said.

The mediator is expected to help arrange the distribution of funds that come from insurance payouts, lawsuit proceeds and the planned sale of the site where the building once stood.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Mediator to Sort Through Surfside Claims
A Florida judge says a mediator will be named to sort through claims arising from the deaths of 98 people in the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium. Above, rescue personnel at the disaster's site in Surfside, Florida, on June 25. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

Several attorneys compared the Florida collapse to the difficult task of assigning value to human life versus property losses and other claims after the 9/11 attacks. That process, overseen by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, has now become the Netflix film Worth, starring Michael Keaton as Feinberg, and is based on Feinberg's own book.

"What is life worth?" Keaton, as Feinberg, says in an early scene. "The answer is a number. And that's the job."

The site, slightly less than 2 acres, is already under a sales contract for $120 million. The property will be put out for bid to find out if there are other interested buyers who might pay more.

Still, there likely won't be nearly enough to fully compensate everyone for their losses. The mediator, once appointed, would be tasked with reaching a fair deal for all victims, attorneys said.

"We're going to work very hard to get this done," said Ricardo Martinez-Cid, one of the lawyers representing wrongful-death victims. "Hopefully, it will be to the benefit of all victims."

Hanzman said he was contacting Miami attorney Bruce W. Greer, who has extensive experience in mediation, to handle the matter. Greer did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email asking whether he will accept.

"It's going to be time-consuming and difficult," Hanzman said. "This is one of those situations where there is going to have to be compromise."

One outcome all sides hope to avoid is requiring condo owners to pay an assessment to cover claims in excess of the money available through the property sale, insurance or lawsuit payouts. Florida law appears to mandate that but it's unclear if it applies to this disaster, court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg said.

"It may apply. I am not absolutely certain," Goldberg said. "If it does apply, it may have significant impact."

One other potential source of money is from the state or federal governments. Talks are ongoing over such issues as forgiveness of property taxes, mortgages and other forms of compensation.

Hanzman repeated that victim claims are likely to far exceed the amount of money available.

"These people are going to be left with significant shortfalls," the judge said, adding that he wants to avoid a protracted legal battle. "Everybody who suffered a loss here is a victim. Everybody will have a right to be heard."

Surfside Memorial
A victim's relative mourns on August 24 at the makeshift memorial where the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building stood in Surfside, Florida. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images