Who is Liable if a Building Collapses or Causes Injury?

The original designers and builders of a building can be liable if the building collapses or otherwise causes injury.  Ordinarily, when someone does something wrong and that error causes injury, the person causing the error should pay for the consequences.  The exception to this rule of negligence is the Slavin Doctrine.  This is a doctrine or principal announced by the Supreme Court of Florida in 1958 in a case entitled Slavin v. Kay.  The rule is that the designer and builder cannot be liable for patent defects in the construction of a building once the builder and designer have given control over the building to the owner or developer.  One of the issues is what has to be “patent”?  Is it the defect itself?  Or is it the dangerousness of the defect?  In Vancelette v. Boulan South Beach Condominium Assoc. Inc., 229 So. 3d 398 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), the majority opinion affirmed summary judgment for the defendants who installed certain bushes in the median at an intersection where a traffic crash occurred which killed the occupant of one of the cars.  The dissent said:


1. The Slavin Doctrine

In Slavin v. Kay, 108 So. 2d 462, 466 (Fla. 1959), the Florida Supreme Court held that “[b]efore accepting the work [of a contractor] as being in full compliance with the terms of the contract, [a property owner] is presumed to have made a reasonably careful inspection thereof, and to know of its defects, and if he takes it in the defective condition, he accepts the defects and the negligence that caused them as his own, and thereafter stands forth as their author.” This court further defined the contours of the “Slavin doctrine” in Florida Department of Transportation v. Capeletti Bros., Inc., 743 So. 2d 150, 152 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999): “Generally, the liability of a contractor is cut off after the owner has accepted the work performed if the alleged defect is a patent defect which the owner could have discovered and remedied.” Accordingly, the Slavin doctrine applies to “cut off” a contractor’s liability when two things have occurred: (1) the owner has accepted the work performed; and (2) the alleged defect is a patent defect that the owner in the exercise of reasonable care could have discovered and remedied.[4]

Importantly, as to the question of patency, we held in Capeletti that “the test. . . is not whether or not the condition was obvious to the owner, but whether or not the dangerousness of the condition was obvious had the owner exercised reasonable care.” Id. “If the dangerousness of the condition was not obvious, then the defect is latent, and the contractor is not automatically relieved of liability.” Id.

Potential Defendants: 

(1) The authors of any studies or reports on any inspections of the building in the last 10 to 15 years which did not provide (a) direct, powerful, and urgent warnings about the structural issues; and (b) specific instructions on how to remedy the structural issues;  (2) The contractors for the adjacent building the construction of which caused unnecessary and unreasonable vibration and settling of the foundation of the Champlain South Tower;  (3) The condominium association for not remedying the situation in a timely manner when for years they were advised of the structural issues;  (4) The City of Surfside for misrepresenting the nature and the urgency of the problems.