The Florida Condominium Disaster

We’ve all seen the horrifying video. We know about the tragic loss of life and potential loss of life. It’s an astounding catastrophe for so many.
And we can’t help wondering: Could it happen here?

The short answer is:  Yes, it could happen anywhere.    And I have to admit that, over the course of almost forty years, I’ve seen two or three “close calls” in Ontario.

The key, of course, is vigilance.  (More on this below.)

What happened in Florida?

We don’t yet know WHY a large part of the condominium building in Surfside Florida collapsed the way it did.   We’ve seen the allegations about lack of maintenance.  We’ve seen the comments and recommendations made (over the past few years) by engineers who were involved with the building; and we’ve seen the allegations about delayed repairs.  We’ve seen the calls for more frequent, in-depth structural audits for such buildings.  We’ve seen the calls for closer oversight by local officials.  We’ve seen the comments about the substrate beneath the foundation.  We’ve seen the comments about vibrations from nearby construction.  And we’ve seen questions raised about the original construction.

But we don’t yet know what exactly went wrong.

From watching the video, it certainly appears (to a layperson like me) that a localized failure (like a “punched column”) can lead to a wholesale collapse (something described as “pancaking of the slabs”).

Needless to say, this is a nightmare for those of us who are involved with such buildings.  All we can do is make our best efforts to avoid a similar occurrence.  Again, vigilance is the key. 

How can this be prevented?

Most jurisdictions (including Florida) have protections against these sorts of calamities.   

Here are some of the protections that I know exist in Ontario law:

  • As is the case throughout Canada and the U.S., we have a robust Building Code (which I’m told includes “over-design” for most structural components).
  • We have licensed, professional condominium property managers who, in my experience, are highly competent.   In many cases, they will spot budding problems.
  • We have mandatory training for our condominium directors.  Condominium directors in Ontario generally understand their roles and their responsibilities.
  • We have mandatory reserve funds (mandatory financial planning and investment for predicted long-term repairs and replacements). 
  • We have mandatory reserve fund studies, which require an expert inspection of every condominium building in Ontario during the building’s first year and then at least every six years thereafter.  These are surface inspections…..but the experts involved inevitably recommend further investigation if surface symptoms reveal a potential underlying issue.  Reserve fund studies also guide Ontario condominium Boards when it comes to predicted required long-term repairs and replacements.  [An update without an inspection is also required – at the “three-year point” – between the “inspection studies”.]  
  • We also have Section 37 (3) of the Ontario Condominium Act, which says that condominium Directors are protected from liability if they rely upon the advice of an expert.  This incentivizes our Ontario Boards to seek expert advice….and then to follow that advice.   [This is also one of our foremost recommendations to condominium Boards and Managers:   If ever in doubt – particularly about a building issue – promptly seek expert advice…..and then follow that advice in a timely manner.]
  • Finally, as is true in many jurisdictions, Ontario condominium corporations have powerful lien rights that help with collection of fees (needed to get work done).

Buildings can still face unexpected defects or deterioration; and buildings can still fall into disrepair due to neglect.  When this happens, and particularly if expensive work is required to reinstate the building, I know that this can place huge stress on the owners and on the entire community.  In most cases, the legal responsibility (for the work) falls upon the Board, whereas the financial burden of course falls upon the owners (whether or not borrowing is available to soften some of the financial blow).  The potential for tension between the Board and the owners is obvious.  That’s when fulsome communication will often be the key to successfully moving forward…..and may be vital to a sound result for the building.

Building construction and maintenance are not always perfect.  The risk of failure is an inescapable reality.   But, as described above, our Ontario law includes some strong protections and stimuli that I believe keep the risks as low as possible.

Stay tuned to Condo Law News to keep up to date on the latest developments in Condo Law!