A pedestrian walkway in Miami (near FIU) collapsed on March 15, 2018. Six people were killed.
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 or settlement of over $90 million for the family members’ mental pain and suffering from the loss of their loved ones. That $90 million figure would apply if punitive damages are also awarded, which I’ll discuss 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 is investigating the incident. They will prepare a long form crash report for those who were killed 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 Will Get Records from Designer and Builder
The National Transportation and Safety Board Go To team arrived in Miami on March 15, 2018.
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 will conduct an extensive, thorough investigation that looks to see what the probable cause of the bridge collapse was.
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.
In order to win the bid to build this bridge, MCM was likely required to have a large insurance policy. The same is true for the bridge designer, FIGG.
Should either be found negligent for the bridge collapse, this is at least gives the families of those killed some 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.
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.
Will the Family Members of Those Killed Hire a Lawyer?
Yes, and they have. One reason that family members hire a wrongful death lawyer is because, in order to settle a wrongful death case, a probate estate needs to be opened.
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.
The most common people who hire a wrongful death lawyer are the spouse, parent or child of the decedent.
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.
This case will likely be filed in Miami-Dade County state court since the collapse occurred here and MCM is a Florida corporation.
If a big verdict gets awarded in a Miami court, which is where this case would be filed, the trial court has the ability to lower the verdict. If the trial court won’t lower the verdict, the case would get appealed to the 3rd DCA. 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.
Brandon’s estate also has a claim for loss of net accumulations, which 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.
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.
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. 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 into their Kendall home Thursday when the bridge collapsed. González was 57. Arias was 53. Both were killed.
If Alberto Arias didn’t have any children at the time of his death, his mother has a claim for pain and suffering. The value of Alberto Arias’ mother’s pain and suffering claim is likely under $1 million dollars.
This is because Alberto was an adult child at the time of his death. He was an adult child since he was 25 years old or older.
Does the Bridge Employee Who Was Killed While on the Bridge Have Different Rights?
An employee of a company that provides products to strengthen bridges died in this collapse.
The Miami Herald reported that Navaro Brown, 37, died Thursday, according to his employer, Structural Technologies VSL.
Structural Technologies VSL was working on the project “providing installation support for our products.” Nathaniel’s family will likely receive death benefits under Florida’s workers’ compensation law. Workers comp death benefits are typically only a fraction of the full value of pain and suffering compensation in a wrongful death case.
Brown’s family likely won’t be able to sue his employer, Structural Technologies VSL , for pain and suffering.
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. 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.