A pedestrian walkway in Miami (near FIU) collapsed on March 15, 2018. Six people were killed. Also, eight people were injured.
My prayers go out to the families of those who were killed in this incident. This “accident” is a reminder of how precious life is.
I’m going to discuss the rights of the family members of those who are killed in a bridge collapse accident. This includes the family members of the drivers, passengers or worker who were killed in the collapse.
This incident could result in a verdict of over $90 million for the family members’ mental pain and suffering from the loss of their loved ones.
Let me be clear:
No one can predict with certainty whether the parties will settle. Likewise, no one can predict exactly how much a jury may award.
However, most wrongful death cases settle. The same is true for personal injury cases. These lawsuits will likely settle before trial.
Attorneys and insurance companies put a settlement value on wrongful cases. They do so by looking at how much juries have awarded for similar cases in the past.
That $90 million figure would apply if a jury awards punitive damages. I’ll discuss punitive damages later.
I give a breakdown of the full value of the wrongful death claims of each victim’s family in a moment. Each family members’ case has a different value.
I also discuss which victims’ family likely has the largest claim for pain and suffering compensation, and why.
First, I talk about some factors that affect the wrongful death claims.
The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) confirmed several fatalities after several cars were crushed by the bridge near Florida International University’s campus.
The FHP is a law enforcement agency in Florida. Since this incident took place on 8th street, the FHP investigated the incident. They’ve likely prepared a long form crash report for those who were killed and injured in this accident.
The FHP will also prepare a homicide report for those who died. The homicide report is usually many pages long. It goes into graphic detail about how the accident occurred.
The NTSB is Investigating and Has Interviewed Many People
The National Transportation and Safety Board Go To team arrived in Miami on the day of the collapse.
They are the same agency that investigates plane crashes and big rig trucking accidents.
In most car accident cases or slip and fall cases, the NTSB doesn’t investigate.
Why does this matter?
The NTSB is conducting an extensive, thorough investigation that looks to see what the probable cause of the bridge collapse was.
NTSB investigators and parties to the investigation examined an approximately 5-foot-wide section of the bridge deck that was cut on either side of Node #11 and 12, which was photographed and subsequently documented using 3-D laser scanning.
The above photo illustrates the condition of the cracks after the move of the main span that occurred on March 10, 2018. Photo taken on March 14, 2018 at 1:50 pm shows east side directly adjacent to vertical member 12, top of deck looking down, view of crack. Labels added to photo by the NTSB. (Photo: Bolton, Perez & Associates Consulting Engineers)
Despite what many people believe, wrongful death cases are tough. However, the NTSB investigation will provide a lengthy and detailed opinion of the probable cause of bridge collapse.
The Safety Board will coordinate the bridge wreckage removal process in a fast manner. However, they will ensure that all relevant bridge components of are not destroyed during the removal. They may develop a layout plan for critical structural elements.
The NTSB will likely get records from the bridge designer, FIGG Bridge Engineers. They will likely look at the design calculations to see if there were errors.
The NTSB will also get the records from MCM, the bridge builder. According to its’ employees profiles on Linkedin, MCM has several hundred employees. According to Engineering News-Record, MCM is the 240th largest construction contractor in the United States.
FIGG Has $11 Million in Insurance Coverage to Pay the Victims’ Families
The bridge engineer, FIGG, had two insurance policies. Travelers is the parent company for both policies.
The Phoenix Insurance Company insures FIGG for the first $1 million. Here is the declarations page:
Then, The Travelers Indemnity Company’s business excess liability (umbrella) insures FIGG for $10 million.
Here is a copy of Travelers’ declarations page:
I’ve settled personal injury cases with Travelers. This includes a $210,000 settlement for a wrist fracture. I also settled a broken arm fall down case for $197,500 with Travelers.
Likewise, MCM was likely required to have a large insurance policy. Otherwise, they may not have been able to win the bid to build the bridge.
My educated guess is that MCM’s policy was probably around $11 million or so.
Should either be found negligent for the bridge collapse, this is at least gives the families of those killed some hope. Hope that they will be able to meet the mounting financial responsibilities that they will likely encounter.
Both MCM and FIGG have likely put their general liability insurance companies on notice about the incident. The insurance companies have likely set a very large reserve in this claim.
Sometimes, in accident cases, people are killed on someone’s property and the property owner is uninsured. I’ve had this happen in fall down and other injury cases on a couple of occasions in Miami.
Or sometimes the landowner’s insurance company goes bankrupt. I’ve had this happen in a two fall down cases. Again, both accidents happened in Miami.
Neither of these scenarios are likely to happen here. This was a $14.2 million bridge that was designed to withstand a Category 5 Hurricane.
Thus, both the designer and builder likely were required to get an insurance from an A rated insurer that isn’t likely to go bankrupt.
The NTSB may interview personnel from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) regarding the role in quality control for the design review process. They may look at hundreds or thousands of photos that were taken of the bridge.
How Much Will FIU Pay to the Families of the Bridge Collapse Victims?
According Marquise Hepburn’s lawsuit, Florida International University (FIU) is the bridge owner. Marquise was one of the victims who was injured, but not killed.
If FIU is found to be at fault, and the plaintiffs get a verdict, FIU doesn’t owe more than $300,000. Yes, this $300,000 amount is what FIU would owe to everyone combined.
Even if FIU has an insurance policy for over $300,000, the insurance company wouldn’t owe a dime more than $300,000.
Why would FIU’s financial exposure be capped at $300,000?
Because Florida has sovereign immunity laws. This $300,000 cap apply to city, state and county agencies.
Is there any way that FIU could owe more than $300,000?
Yes. The victims’ families could try to pass a claims bill with Florida’s legislature. They would hire a lobbyist who would try to get a claims bill passed.
The majority claims bills aren’t often successful. However, here the bridge collapse became worldwide news. Thus, the media exposure will likely result in a claims bill being passed.
Also, FIU’s insurer (if any) may offer to pay in excess of the $300,000 limits even without the passage of a claims bills.
This is because the insurance company knows that the families will likely be able to get a claims bill passed.
Can You Use the NTSB Report In a Lawsuit for Compensation?
Unfortunately, no. The court can’t admit into evidence or use of any part of an NTSB report related to an accident in a [wrongful death] lawsuit for compensation resulting from a matter mentioned in the report. Title 49 United States Code, Section 1154(b).
However, you can send the NTSB report to the responsible insurance company. It can be a persuasive document to show them why you think their insured is liable.
Have the Families (of Those Killed) Sued?
Yes. Several lawsuits have been filed.
Have the Family Members of Those Killed Hire a Lawyer?
Yes. They have filed wrongful death lawsuits.
In order to sue for a family member’s wrongful death, each family has opened up a probate estate for the decedent (person who was killed). If the family members don’t open an estate, they can’t settle the wrongful death.
Setting up and administering a probate estate is complex. Thus, usually only attorneys set up an estate. Thus, a family member almost always needs to hire a probate lawyer to open the estate.
I’ve said it before. There are many benefits to hiring an injury attorney. This is especially true in wrongful death cases. This is because the court needs to approve the settlement.
The most common people who hire a wrongful death lawyer are the spouse, parent or child of the decedent.
Again, the decedent’s family members have hired a wrongful death lawyer. Those wrongful death lawyers likely used a different lawyer to open an estate for the decedent.
After the estates were opened, a family member was appointed personal representative of the estate.
In Florida, the personal representative (PR) is the only one who can sue for the estate and the “survivors“. The survivors are the family members who have a right to compensation for mental pain and suffering, loss of support and services and other damages.
The estate can sue for loss of net accumulations, which is money that the decedent would have had at the time of death if he or she died of natural causes.
Will This Case Settle Before Trial?
This case is likely to settle before trial. Most wrongful death lawsuits for bridge collapses do settle. Take for example, the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis which killed 13 people and injured 145. That case settled for $52.4 million.
Companies usually settle because they don’t know how much a jury may award. Some juries award little. On the other hand, some are more liberal and award more money.
Companies often like to limit their financial exposure by settling rather than taking the case to trial and letting the jury “write the check”.
Look at another case, where 100 people were injured when a walking bridge collapsed at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. In that case, according to ESPN, most of the nearly 50 lawsuits filed against the speedway were settled out of court.
Who Usually Pays to Settle, or is Found Liable, in a Bridge Collapse Settlement or Verdict?
Most bridge collapse verdicts and settlements are paid by the bridge builder, the engineering firm, the Department of Transportation or others.
As the accident investigation develops, we’ll know the probable cause of the collapse.
Is There a Cap on How Much Family Members Can Recover for Pain and Suffering?
Yes, though it is not a one size fits all answer.
To get an idea of the cap on pain and suffering compensation in a Florida wrongful death case, look at what Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals (3rd DCA) and the Florida Supreme Court say is an unreasonable payout.
Thus far, everyone has sued in Miami-Dade County state court. They did so because the collapse occurred here. Further, MCM is a Florida corporation.
If a big verdict gets awarded, the trial court has the ability to lower the verdict. If the trial court won’t lower the verdict, the defendants will likely ask an appeals court to lower the verdict. The 3rd DCA has the power to lower or approve the verdict.
The 3rd DCA is likely to approve a multi-million dollar verdict for pain and suffering in these 3 instances:
The above 3 scenarios usually result in the highest payouts for pain and suffering.
This is because courts consider these to be very close, dependent relationships.
Notice that I put the term “minor child” in quotes. This is because, for purposes of pain and suffering compensation, Florida courts consider a “minor child” to be someone who is under 25 years old.
Looking at past Florida appellate cases, the average payout for a spouse’s pain, suffering and loss of companionship was about $3.3 million dollars.
Total Settlement or Verdict Could Top $90 Million
If the bridge builder or design firm’s negligence caused the collapse, it wouldn’t be shocking if the total settlement or verdict for all surviving family members was over $90 million.
I arrived at this figure because at least two of the decedent’s (people killed) were survived by a spouse, at least two decedents were survived by minor children, and one “minor child” decedent was survived by a parent.
The total payout will depend on negligence, how many surviving family members there are, and the type of surviving family members (“minor child”, “adult child”, parent or spouse).
On the other hand, Florida courts usually won’t approve multi-million dollar verdicts for an adult child whose parent was killed, or a parent whose adult child was killed. The exception would be if the adult child was dependent on the parent. Then, the appeals court is willing to let a large verdict stand.
Wife and Children of Brandon Brownfield Likely Have the Largest Case
Tragically, Brandon Brownfield, a husband and father of 3 young girls was killed in the collapse. His wife and 3 young children are considered “survivors” under Florida’s wrongful death law.
His wife, Chelsea, has a claim for her mental pain and suffering. Each of his minor children has a claim for mental pain and suffering, and loss of guidance and instruction.
Each likely won’t be able to get more than $4 million in pain and suffering. Thus, the value of pain and suffering of those combined claims is likely limited to under $16 million.
Should Travelers (FIGG’S insurer) Pay the $11 million Insurance Limits?
I would think so. This is because they potentially have a huge claim. Additionally, there are still 5 other families who also have large claims. The value of those claims adds up very quickly.
Let’s assume that FIGG were found to be 70% responsible for causing the bridge collapse. I’m randomly choosing 70%. Perhaps they aren’t even liable. It’s too early to tell.
Assume that a jury awarded each Brownfield surviving family member $4 million for her pain and suffering. If this happens, the Brownfields’ total wrongful death claim may be worth more than FIGG’s $11 million insurance policy.
Because 70% of $16 million is $11.2 million.
And we’re just talking about the pain and suffering part of the claim. There could also be a big loss of net accumulations claim.
Loss of net accumulations is the amount of money that Brandon would’ve had at the time of his death if he lived his complete life and died of natural causes.
Additionally, the family may have a big loss of support and services claim.
Again, there are many other families with large pain and suffering claims.
Brandon’s spouse (Chelsea) hired a Miami lawyer to represent the her as personal representative of her husband’s estate. On April 17, 2018, she sued MCM, FIGG and many other companies.
FIGG’s Insurers Have Asked the Court to Rule That It Owes Nothing!
FIGG’s insurers (Travelers and Phoenix) filed a lawsuit against FIGG in federal court. On July 27, 2018, they amended (it).
Basically, many of the families sued for wrongful death under a theory that FIGG and MCM were a joint venture. However, FIGG’S insurers say that the insurance policies don’t cover joint ventures.
If the judge agrees, Travelers and Phoenix won’t have to pay any money to any families or injured people who’ve sued using the joint venture theory.
If that happens, the families will be stuck hoping that FIGG has enough assets to pay any potential verdict.
On August 14, 2018, NBC6 interviewed me about this issue. Here, is a photo that my awesome paralegal (Jenny) took:
I don’t know how much money FIGG has.
Those companies are all worth many billions. They can easily pay a $25 million judgement. Thus, it’s no big deal that they don’t have insurance.
However, Can FIGG afford to cough up $25 million?
I don’t know. That’s a huge amount of money. The majority of businesses can’t afford to pay $25 million.
Father of Teenager Killed in Collapse Likely Limited to Under $4 Million for Pain and Suffering
A FIU student, Alexa Duran, who was killed in the collapse. She was a FIU student.
Alexa is survived by her father, Orlando Duran. I can’t imagine begin to imagine the pain that he is feeling.
She was with her friend Richard Humble, who suffered a neck injury but was able to walk away. I don’t know whether he has neck surgery. Even if he has a cervical spinal fusion, his case isn’t worth as much as the other wrongful death lawsuits.
His claim is worth much less than a wrongful death claim brought by Alexa’s father. This is because Richard’s pain and suffering claim is much smaller.
The upper range of the full value for Alexa’s father’s pain and suffering is likely under $4 million. I don’t know if Alexa was survived by her mother. If she was also survived by her mother, her mother’s pain and suffering claim would likely be limited to under $4 million.
Under Florida’s wrongful death law, Alexa’s siblings (if any) aren’t entitled to any money for pain and suffering. The same is true for any siblings of any other the other people who were killed in this collapse. (The one exception would be if the siblings witnessed the bridge collapse).
What is my basis for saying that each parent’s claim for pain and suffering is worth below $4 million?
We look at what the appeals court – that would decide this bridge collapse case – has said in past cases.
In one case, a teenager (Nancy) was killed due to medical malpractice. Her parents hired a lawyer who sued for wrongful death. The parents’ attorney asked the jury to award the parents $6 million, which he said would be a reasonable award for pain and suffering. Thereafter, the jury awarded $8 million ($4 million per parent).
Miami-Dade County’s appellate court, the 3rd DCA, would likely be the court that would decide any appeals in this case.
Miami Appeals Court Has Said $4 Million is Too Much Money for Each Parent in a Death Case
The 3rd DCA has said that $4 million per parent is too high. It ordered the trial court to reduce the verdict to the highest amount which the jury could have properly awarded. That amount would be under $4 million per parent for pain and suffering. That case was Glabman v. De La Cruz, 954 So.2d 60, 63 (Fla.3d DCA 2007)
However, if the bridge designer or developer’s negligence caused this collapse, the settlement and verdict for all survivors will likely, conservatively, be over $10 Million.
On the other end of the spectrum, since survivors include several minor children, at least one spouse, and the father of a minor child, the award could top $90 Million.
If an adult child’s parent was killed in this bridge collapse, the value of the pain and suffering component is smaller for settlement purposes.
Few appeals courts in Florida have commented on the value of an adult child’s pain and suffering.
However, if you look at the verdicts that were either approved or reduced on appeal, you’ll see that the average compensation that appeals courts approved was $605,000 per adult child. This is for the mental pain and suffering part of the adult child’s claim.
The other victims who were killed while an occupants of a car were (ages in parenthesis): Oswald Gonzalez (57), Alberto Arias (53), and Rolando Fraga Hernandez.
Punitive Damages Are Likely Capped at $40 Million for the Brownfield Family
I don’t know whether a court would allow Chelsea Brownfield to sue for punitive damages. Punitive damages are in addition to compensation for pain and suffering.
In order to win on a claim for punitive damages, the responsible company must have been guilty of either intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Those are both high standards. It is much higher than the negligence standard.
It is much tougher to get money for punitive damages than it is to get compensation for pain and suffering. On the flip side, punitive damages awards against companies can be big.
For example, recently the mother of a 15-year-old boy was awarded $15 million in punitive damages against Florida Power and Light (FPL). Their son, Justin Dominguez was climbing a bamboo tree when he was electrocuted by a power line. He died. His mother also was awarded $12.5 million for her pain and suffering.
FPL has asked the trial court to grant a new trial. On March 26, 2018, the court will decide whether it will reduce the verdict.
I think both the pain and suffering verdict against FPL will be significantly reduced on appeal. The punitive damages verdict might be allowed to stand.
If the personal representative of Brandon Brownfield’s estate is allowed to sue for punitive damages, they would likely be capped at around $40 million. This is because the highest permissible ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages that I’m aware of the 3rd DCA approving in a big case is 2.5 to 1.
Earlier, I said that the Brownfield family is likely capped at $16 million for pain and suffering. Thus, if we multiply $16 million by 2.5, the punitive cap may be about $40 million dollars.
In most cases, punitive damages generally can’t be bigger than 3 times the verdict for compensatory damages. In the bridge collapse case, the compensatory damages would primarily be pain and suffering.
Punitive Damages Are Likely Capped at $7.5 Million for Alexa Duran’s Father
It is unknown whether a court would allow Alexa Duran’s father to sue for punitive damages. If he is allowed to sue for punitive damages, the verdict for punitive damages will likely be capped at $7.5 million.
This is because that figure is 2.5 times the compensatory damages.
Fraga’s Wife, and Teenage Son, Likely to Get Under $8 Million for Pain and Suffering
Rolando Fraga was killed in the bridge collapse. He was survived by his wife and 15-year-old teenage son. The personal representative of Fraga’s estate has sued Munilla Construction Management, and FIGG Bridge Engineers.
Fraga’s son and widow allegedly live in a different country (Panama). However, under Florida wrongful death law, they are entitled to pain and suffering if they can show that negligence caused Fraga’s death. This is true even though they live in another country. (I’ve written about foreigners who are injured while in Florida.)
Each likely will get less than $4 million in pain and suffering. Thus, the value of pain and suffering of their combined claims is likely limited to under $8 million.
Fraga’s estate also has a claim for loss of net accumulations, which is the amount of money that Fraga would’ve had at the time of his death if he lived his complete life and died of natural causes.
Punitive Damages Are Likely Capped at $20 Million for Fraga’s Wife and Son
It is unknown whether a court would allow Fraga’s personal representative (PR) to sue for punitive damages. If the PR is allowed to sue for punitive damages, the verdict for punitive damages will likely be capped at $20 million.
This is because that figure is 2.5 times the likely limit on compensatory damages, which is $8 million.
Alberto Arias’ Mother’s Pain and Suffering Claim for Her Adult Child’s Death Limited to $1 Million
Longtime couple Osvaldo González and Alberto Arias were moving Arias’ elderly mother (Emma Diaz) into their Kendall home Thursday when the bridge collapsed. González was 57. Arias was 53. Both were killed.
Alberto Arias didn’t have any children at the time of his death. Alberto wasn’t married.
Since he was 25 or older, and he wasn’t married, his mom (Emma) has a claim for pain and suffering.
Emma’s pain and suffering claim is likely under $1 million dollars.
Because Alberto was an adult child at the time of his death. Courts usually won’t allow the parent of an adult child to get over $1 million for the parent’s pain and suffering.
Oswald Gonzalez’s Family Likely Has The Smallest Claim
As I mentioned earlier, Oswald Gonzalez was killed in the collapse. His nephew Erik Rojas filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family. The family members are:
- Marisol Gonzalez, sister of the deceased;
- Reinaldo Gonzalez, brother of the deceased;
- Erik Rojas, nephew of the deceased
However, none of these family members are entitled to money for pain and suffering.
In Florida, siblings, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts cannot get compensation for a relative’s death.
In the lawsuit, they’ll likely be able to get compensation for funeral expenses. They also should be able to recover money for the loss of net accumulations to Gonzalez’ estate.
Wife of Bridge Employee (Who Was Killed) Likely Capped at $4 Million for Pain and Suffering
An employee of a company that provides products to strengthen bridges died in this collapse. His name was Navaro Brown (age 37).
Navaro was survived by his wife, Winsome Joy Campbell. He did not have any children.
On the day of the accident, Brown was employed by Structural Technologies VSL. Structural Technologies VSL was working on the project “providing installation support for our products.” Winsome has likely received the $150,000 death benefit under Florida’s workers’ compensation law.
The maximum workers compensation death benefit is $150,000. Florida Statute 440.16(b)
Campbell can’t sue Navaro’s employer for pain and suffering.
That $150,000 amount is a fraction of the amount that juries often award for pain and suffering from the wrongful death of a spouse.
Workers comp also must pay for the funeral expenses. However, they don’t owe more than $7,500.
Campbell has sued Munilla, FIGG and others for the wrongful death of her husband. Her pain and suffering award will likely be capped at $4 million.
It will be interesting to see if those defendants argue that they have workers comp immunity.
How Much Will the Entire Pain and Suffering Payout Be Capped At?
Thus far, I’ve talked about the two biggest potential claims from these wrongful death lawsuits. They are pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
The pain and suffering award for every survivor combined likely won’t be above $28 million.
However, it can easily exceed FIGG’s $11 million insurance policy with Travelers. Thus, I would think that Travelers’ attorney should’ve already reached out to the families and offered the $11 million limits.
$11 million is a large amount of insurance coverage. However, $11 million isn’t that large considering how many surviving family members there are. As I’ve already shared above, each has a large pain and suffering claim.
When the value of a wrongful death case is clearly going to exceed the insurance limits, insurance companies often reach out to the survivors of the decedent. They may offer to arrange a big meeting where they offer the policy limits in exchange for a release not to sue their insured.
How Long Do People Injured (or Family Members of Those Killed) Have to Sue in a Bridge Collapse Case?
For those who were killed, the personal representative (PR) of the decedent’s estate has two (2) years to sue. All of the families have sued. Therefore, this time limit is no longer an issue.
People who were injured, but survived, have four (4) years to sue for personal injury.
Again, my heart goes out to all who were killed in this terrible tragedy.
I am updating this article periodically as there are developments in these cases.
Will Any of the Bridge Collapse Wrongful Death Lawsuits Settle Fast?
So far, they haven’t. This case is different than the boy was attacked and killed at Disney by the alligator. It is also different from the Uber accident where the self driving car that killed the pedestrian.
In those accidents, Uber and Disney wanted the story out of the news. Therefore, those wrongful death claims likely settled quickly.
Disney and Uber are each worth over $70 Billion. Disney and Uber could easily pay to settle the wrongful death claim to get those stories out of the news.
Here, the bridge developer and engineering company are much smaller companies. Additionally, perhaps they aren’t concerned about this story remaining in the news. Moreover, maybe they don’t think that they are liable.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published immediately after the collapse. I’ve updated it periodically.