In Cox, the Third DCA ruled that Florida’s offer of judgment statute
conflicts with, and is therefore not applicable in, maritime cases. Cox
filed the underlying suit against Royal Caribbean to recover for injuries
he sustained while employed aboard a Royal Caribbean vessel. He asserted
claims for, among other things, Jones Act negligence. Cox served an offer
of judgment pursuant to Fla. Stat. 768.79 and Rule 1.442 of the Florida
Rules of Civil Procedure. Following trial, the jury found in favor of
Cox, and the trial court later found Cox entitled to attorneys’
fees and costs per his offer of judgment.
Royal Caribbean argued that the fee award was impermissible because the
award pursuant to Florida’s offer of judgment statute conflicts
with maritime law. The Third DCA initially affirmed the fee award based
upon Royal Caribbean Corp. v. Modesto, 614 So. 2d 517 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1992),
in which the court ruled that that Florida’s offer of judgment rules
did not conflict with federal admiralty law. On rehearing, Royal Caribbean
asked that the Third DCA recede from its Modesto decision.
On rehearing, the Third DCA held that the application of the offer of judgment
statute conflicts with and interferes with federal maritime law, and thus,
the Third DCA receded from Modesto. “Federal substantive maritime
law governs in seaman cases brought in state court.” Federal maritime
law follows the American rule, which provides that ordinarily each party
must pay its own attorney’s fees, absent an exception such as a
federal statute, an enforceable contractual provision providing for fees,
or a finding that the non-prevailing party engaged in bad-faith conduct.
The Third DCA noted that none of the exceptions was present in the Cox
case. Rather, the trial court awarded fees and costs pursuant to Florida’s
offer of judgment statute. The Third DCA reviewed federal case law, and
noted that federal courts have consistently concluded that application
of state-fee shifting statutes conflicts with maritime law. Based upon
that federal case law, the Third DCA concluded that Florida’s offer
of judgment statute conflicts with the general rule of federal maritime
law that parties pay their own fees absent an exception, which was not
applicable in Cox.