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'Why are we protecting people who do this?' Florida bill would reduce time for homeowners to file claims against builders

A bill by Northeast Florida Sen. Travis Hutson would sharply limit homeowners' ability to file construction defect claims for hidden structural flaws.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Twelve seconds. That’s how long it took to turn a 40-year-old condo to dust, and claim the lives of nearly 100 people.

The Surfside tragedy horrified observers in a country where a building's structural safety is rarely questioned. Many thought it would prompt Florida lawmakers to take a fresh look at preventing – and punishing – construction defects.

A bill moving quickly through the 2022 legislative session tackles the issue of defective construction, but critics say it's moving the state in the wrong direction.

Proposed by Northeast Florida Sen. Travis Hudson (R-St. Augustine), Senate Bill 736 dramatically reduces the time a home builder is responsible for construction defects. For single family homes, it cuts that time in half – from 10 years to five. It makes no exceptions for intentional fraud, or for violations of building and fire safety codes.

“That will essentially make Florida the least consumer-friendly state in the nation,” attorney Rick Nutter told the Community Affairs Committee Wednesday morning. “This type of five-year bar will absolutely prohibit a homeowner from any recourse on what's typically their largest investment.”

Hutson said his goal is to make the process of resolving construction complaints easier, reducing the need for litigation, and keeping insurance rates for builders and developers from rising due to claims. The bill is backed the state's powerful homebuilder and developer lobby.

Speaking on behalf of the Florida Home Builders Association, attorney Kari Hebrank told committee members, “one of the biggest problems that the industry is now facing is that subcontractors cannot afford the rising costs of liability insurance as a result of Chapter 558 [construction defect] claims.”

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But Attorney Neil O’Brien said shortening the time to bring claims ignores the fact that construction defects can take years to surface. “They're not going to show up in four years," he told an earlier meeting of the Judiciary Committee. "It's going to take 7, 8, 9, 10, maybe even 12 years in some instances for these damages to show up.”

Though hidden, O'Brien said, the defects can be dangerous and expensive. “I see these issues on a daily basis with builders who knowingly violate the code, skip important steps in construction, steps that lead to catastrophic structural damages," he said. "These structures will collapse if left unattended, just like Surfside."

Under Hutson's bill, the clock to file claims would also start running sooner. The window to file construction defect claims, known as the period of repose, currently doesn’t open until the last of these events occurs: Completion of the contract, possession by the owner, or the issuance of certificate of occupancy. The new bill would start the clock when the first one occurred.

In cases where a home isn’t immediately sold – a model home, or a cold real estate market -- O’Brien said, “there's a possibility that their statute of repose has expired before they've even moved into the house.”

Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Lighthouse Point) expressed his opposition to the bill by holding up pictures of his own house, showing his colleagues extensive wood rot from a design flaw.

“This is reality," he said, holding the pictures aloft. "This is what it looks like. It's not often as severe as Surfside -- that's the worst possible scenario. But why are we protecting people who do this, hide this? And why are we punishing homeowners who are completely innocent? They didn't know! That's why it's [called] a ‘latent’ defect.”

Martin Langesfeld, whose sister Nicole and brother-in-law Luis Sadovnic were among the 98 people killed in the Surfside collapse, has been making the trip from South Florida to Tallahassee since November to oppose Senate bill 736.

“She moved into that building two months before, ready to start her life. My sister was crushed to death in a place she called home,” he said. “They took everything from me.”

Langesfeld says the bill flies in the face of what surviving family members deserve. “They're doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done,” he said.

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Speaking at Wednesday’s committee meeting, he said, “instead of dropping accountability from 10 years, why don't we instead work together and raise accountability? So it doesn't occur again? The only ones benefiting from this bill are developers and insurance companies.”

Hutson’s father is a prominent Northeast Florida home builder. The Hutson Companies is currently building the massive SilverLeaf project in St. Johns County, which is ultimately expected to have more than 16,000 homes and 45 acres of retail space. (According to the business' website, Sen. Hutson’s job with the company includes leading the “companies' charitable and civic activities.")

Hudson didn’t respond to a voicemail and email, but he has disputed the Surfside connection.

“That situation is completely different than this,” he said at a November meeting of the Judiciary Committee. “In terms of that particular incident, you're talking about a building that is well beyond 10, 15, 20 years old.”

Jacksonville structural engineer Ron Woods says the condo collapse is an extreme example, but construction defects can destabilize single family homes, too. 

“We're obligated to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public,” he said. “This bill doesn't do that.”

Woods, who has 30 years of experience and has investigated hundreds of construction defect claims, says many defects are well hidden. “Water intrusion is very difficult to show up and can be insidious. It can be very slow moving, and causing damage that takes a while to show up. And many consumers don't know what to look for. Most consumers don't know what to look for.”

Complicating that, Woods said, is the fact that wood rot and structural failings can be masked by an immaculate exterior.

That was the case for Jose Gonzalez. He didn’t realize water was leaking from a poorly installed second-story window until his home was on the brink of collapse. “The window shattered,” he told First Coast News. “The roof was caving in. So that's why the window broke. The window was holding the roof up."

Gonzalez had to sue to get his builder to pay for the $60-thousand-dollar repair. But because his home was eight years old at the time, the builder would've had no obligation to pay under Hutson's proposed bill. “If that was shortened to a four-year period, that would have all been just, 'Oh, tough. Tough luck. Sorry.'”

(The bill was amended Wednesday, to change the proposed period of repose from four to five years -- half the current standard.)

For Martin Langesfeld, the peril is real, and personal. “How many lives is it going to take for legislators to do the right thing?” he asks. “I thought 98 lives was enough.”

The bill, having been approved by both the Judiciary and Community Affairs committees, has just one more stop in Rules. A date for that hearing has not been set.

RELATED: America's largest homebuilder D.R. Horton ordered to pay for pervasive condo defects