Plaintiff worked for Employer and made a claim for Jones Act negligence, failure to treat, maintenance and cure, unearned wages and unseaworthiness. Prior to trial, Plaintiff served an offer of judgment on Employer. Employer objected to the propriety of the offer of judgment and moved to strike. Nonetheless, following a trial on the merits, a jury found in favor of Plaintiff and awarded attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to the state’s offer of judgment laws. Employer appealed.
The sole issue on appeal was whether the award of attorney’s fees was permissible. The Court of Appeal determined that it was not, as such an award under Florida’s offer of judgment statute conflicts with maritime law. The Court, thus, overruled the state court on the award of attorney’s fees, and receded from prior precedent finding the contrary.
In doing so, the Court of Appeal noted that federal maritime law follows the American Rule with respect to awards of attorney’s fees. Under the American Rule, attorney’s fees are permitted only when 1) there is an exception provided for under federal statute, 2) there is an enforceable contractual obligation providing for fees, or 3) the non-prevailing party engaged in bad-faith.
The Court noted that state courts could entertain maritime causes of action, but that state law may only supplement federal maritime law if the state law does not conflict with federal law or interfere with uniformity.
Citing to First Circuit, Third Circuit, and Fifth Circuit decisions, the Florida Court of Appeal noted that application of state fee-shifting statutes such as the Florida offer of judgment statute, conflicts with maritime law and violates the important principle of uniformity. The Florida Court of Appeal, therefore, declined to uphold the lower court’s award of attorney fees to a seaman under Florida’s offer of judgment laws.
Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. v. Cox, — So.3d —- (Fla. 3d DCA 2014)