Thursday, October 6, 2022
Oct. 6, 2022

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Scores of scammers, including ‘Texas minister,’ vie for slice of Surfside settlement fund

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MIAMI — An Oregon man claims he drove across the country to vacation in Miami Beach and met a kindly stranger named Luis at a bar who suggested that instead of sleeping in his car the man stay with a friend at Champlain Towers South in Surfside. They went to the condo and after just one minute of waiting outside, the man heard a loud boom, got hit in the head by a falling chunk of concrete and blacked out.

When he woke up, he was lying next to the rubble of the 12-story building that had collapsed. Shocked, and fearing he would be billed for any medical treatment of his bloody gash, the man left the scene where 98 people died and drove back to Oregon. He has never told anyone his terrifying story until now, as he seeks to collect $50,000 in personal injury damages.

The 33-year-old man from Tigard, Oregon — or so he says — is among more than 450 people who have filed what appear to be fake claims for their piece of the $1.1 billion settlement reached in the Surfside class-action case, according to attorney Michael Goldberg, receiver for the Champlain Towers South condo association.

Many of the bogus claimants learned about the massive settlement fund on a website called hustlermoneyblog.com that alerts people how to submit “no-proof” claims for lawsuits nationwide.

The blog, which features a graphic of a stack of hundred-dollar bills alongside a judge’s gavel, listed the Champlain Towers South case and an official claims form that was posted on Goldberg’s CTS website. As of Thursday, the Surfside case was no longer on hustlermoneyblog.com and the site couldn’t be reached for comment.

The magic number of $1 billion tends to be a magnet, whether for lottery dreamers, poker players or scam artists flocking like vultures to the legal aftermath of a disaster.

The self-described pastor of Baptist Faith Church in Dallas claims congregation members living in Champlain Towers South condos that were given to them perished in “the most devastating event of all ages.” The pastor, who has a Ph.D., lists six unit numbers that never existed in the building yet is asking $3.1 million for the loss of three Ford pickup trucks, 40 laptops, 16 televisions, carpet, “vital records and furnitures.”

There are two separate claims with identical handwriting, identical first names and — upon close inspection of scratched-out marks on the envelopes — identical return addresses, one seeking compensation for a late-term miscarriage and the other for being “facially and extremely disfigured” during the collapse.

Other people claim to be survivors from units that were instantly and completely destroyed when the oceanfront building fell at 1:22 a.m. on June 24, 2021.

Now, Goldberg has asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman to dismiss the “presumptively fraudulent” claims, saying hundreds of dubious people around the country are “seeking to wrongfully capitalize on this tragedy at the expense of the true victims.” Hanzman has set a hearing for Aug. 24, requiring claimants to show up. Goldberg believes that few, if any, will appear because of the risk of committing perjury and being arrested for filing false claims.

“We went through hundreds of these claims,” said Goldberg, who is a partner with the law firm Akerman Senterfitt, who plays the role of a neutral party in the litigation. “Is it possible that we missed something and one or two of the claims are legitimate? Yes, it’s possible, but not very likely.

“I don’t think any of these people are going to show up,” he told the Miami Herald Thursday.

The class-action case was filed by lawyers representing relatives of the 98 people who died and dozens of those who suffered injuries. More than 30 defendants and other parties, accused of failing to maintain a safe structure and causing the collapse, agreed to settle through their insurance companies without admitting wrongdoing. The $1.1 billion wrongful-death and personal-injury settlement was the second largest in Florida history, behind the Big Tobacco case of 1997.

Hanzman is reviewing the wrongful death and personal injury damage claims of victims in a series of intense, in-person hearings through the end of August, after which he will decide how to allocate the money.

Goldberg said he received 741 claims — but 458 have been flagged as scams from “deceitful individuals” who appear to have “no connection” to Champlain South.

Among the suspicious responses: 389 for “simple” personal injury claims, seeking damages of $50,000; another 13 for “full” personal injury claims, seeking unspecified damages, and six for wrongful-death claims, seeking $1 million or more.

A man who said he lived in unit 910 filed a claim to be reimbursed for his loss of contents and furniture. But Goldberg traced the origin of the interior photos the man submitted to a listing on Apartments.com for unit 1009.

“The attached is clear fraud,” Goldberg said of photos downloaded from the web. “Although he was creative.”

The Oregon man says in his claims letter that he’s never told anybody back home about his near-death experience in Surfside because “I just want that part of my mind gone. I wish I could somehow erase that part, but I cannot.” He doesn’t think he will be able to go near a tall building for the rest of his life.

He explains that he quickly left the chaotic scene at Champlain South without any knowledge of what happened to his new friend Luis, because he was afraid he would be caught in a terrorist attack. He worried that, like a pal who got charged thousands of dollars in medical bills after falling down stairs in Oregon and being treated by paramedics, he, too, would get stuck with bills and “I was already on a tight budget when making this trip to Florida so I didn’t have extra money.”

He went to a Home Depot parking lot to clean up and started the long drive home, thinking constantly “about all those people and how I almost lost my life.”

Curiously, the Texas minister never says how many church members died or what their names were, but is quite specific about the itemized value of property lost, including $490,481 for church vans, microphones and speakers.

The two claims from two women who both have the same first name of Stephanie contain other remarkable similarities, including the fact that both are from Southern California. But one, from the Stephanie who was vacationing with unidentified family members at an unspecified unit at Champlain South, seeks the $1 million minimum for the wrongful death of her unborn baby and her emotional anguish.

“I feel depressed and lost,” she writes.

The other Stephanie, who claims she was visiting an unidentified friend at the building and is seeking $50,000 in personal injury damages, said she was at the main entrance when the building fell. Her disfigurement and subsequent medical and psychological treatment will cost her $250,000 in wages and $150,000 in bonuses at her job as an office manager, she said.

By comparison, Goldberg received 283 legitimate responses, including 72 from former Champlain South residents and others seeking $50,000 each for personal injury and 58 seeking unspecified damages for personal injury. In addition, there are relatives of 19 people who died seeking wrongful-death damages of $1 million, the minimum set by the judge, and kin of 79 who died seeking damages to be determined by Hanzman.

In his motion to dismiss the illegitimate claims, Goldberg said that the mostly dubious claimants are from the western region of the United States and fall into three categories: Many “assert that they were in units at the time of the CTS collapse that were completely destroyed in the collapse where no one survived,” or “they were in units at the time of the CTS collapse even though other survivors in those units [say] that they don’t know the [claimant] in question,” or “they were in units that never existed.”

Under all circumstances, Goldberg has asked Hanzman, the class-action judge, to toss them out because they’re clearly phony attempts to cash in on the Champlain Towers South tragedy.

He said that if the judge finds that their “claims are fraudulent and perjury was committed,” the bogus claimants “will have subjected themselves to potentially severe consequences,” including possible criminal charges to be brought by the state attorney’s office.

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