In the early morning hours of June 24, 2021, a 13-story condominium building in the town of Surfside on Miami Beach, Florida, collapsed. Tragically, four people have been confirmed dead, and search and rescue crews continue their efforts to find other survivors, with at least 156 people still unaccounted for. According to recent reports, nearly three years before the collapse, in October 2018, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to concrete slabs beneath the pool deck and beams and walls of the parking garage under the building. While the cause of the collapse remains unknown, the 2018 report suggests that the complex’s management association knew of the potentially severe structural damage to the building.
This tragedy was not the first time a building has collapsed in the County. In 1974, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency building in downtown Miami collapsed. In response, Miami-Dade County created a recertification process for buildings over 40 years old to ensure these buildings’ structural integrity. Because of weather conditions in South Florida and exposure to corrosive salt air, damage to rebar and steel beams can impact the structural integrity of a building over time. The Miami-Dade County Code requires inspections to be conducted to evaluate the general structural condition of the building and to ensure building safety. The association was set to begin plans to repair the building this year, in connection with this recertification process.
This recent disaster leaves many wondering what could have been done to prevent it, and how we can avoid such tragedies. Employees and contractors in the construction industry are uniquely positioned to discover safety risks and other violations in building projects. As such, they can play a significant role in alerting the government, and in turn the public, of serious risks. What laws exist to protect and incentivize these whistleblowers?
Protections for Whistleblowers in Florida
Florida provides broad protection to employees who report legal violations. For employees in the public sector, the law protects public employees, as well as independent contractors with a government agency, who report to an appropriate government agency violations “that create a substantial and specific danger to the public’s health, safety or welfare.” The state’s private sector whistleblower law also protects private employees who disclose wrongdoing to a government agency. Significantly, the law also protects private employees who have “objected to, or refused to participate in, any activity, policy, or practice of the employer which is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation.” An employee who faces retaliation for reporting wrongdoing may be entitled to damages, including lost wages, benefits, and other types of compensatory damages.
False Claims Acts
Protections under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) apply across a wide range of industries, including in the construction industry. The FCA prohibits the intentional presentation of false claims to the government for payment, which includes providing false information in connection with any claims for payment. If a construction whistleblower discovered a violation of the FCA – for example, if a company received federal funds to complete building repairs that were not completed – he or she could file a lawsuit on behalf of the federal government, known as a qui tam. An individual who brings a successful qui tam lawsuit can receive 15 to 30 percent of the damages received by the government. The FCA also includes worker protections so that an individual who brings a qui tam action or tries to stop the FCA violations may be entitled to relief if he or she experiences retaliation on the job.
Like many other states, Florida has a statute modeled on the federal FCA that protects employees for reporting an employer who presents false claims to the state or otherwise misappropriates state property. An individual who brings an action under the Florida FCA may be entitled to a percentage of the amount recovered by the government. Similar to the federal FCA, individuals who report violations under Florida’s FCA are also protected from retaliation for trying to stop such violations or bringing a qui tam action.
News reports state it may take months to know what caused the horrific collapse of the condo building in Miami. Miami-Dade County will undoubtedly evaluate how it may prevent such tragedies in the future. In Miami and elsewhere, whistleblowers can play an integral role in protecting public safety. Federal and state laws provide protections and incentives to those who come forward to report potential violations.