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For nearly a decade, Miami attorney Jonathan Aronson was one of Royal Caribbean Cruises’ go-to defense lawyers on hundreds of personal injury and employee lawsuits. But in 2009, he switched sides and started suing the company as a plaintiff lawyer after the cruise line established an in-house legal department and used Aronson for only one case. The work volume was 65 cases in 2006. Royal Caribbean, upset over what it called a breach of ethics and violation of attorney-client privilege, has been filing motions to disqualify Aronson from all his cases against them. So far, their attempts have fallen flat, with two judges ruling against the company. Aronson and co-counsel Jim Walker, who runs a hard-hitting blog that portrays the cruise industry in a harsh light, Cruise Law News, allege Royal Caribbean is deliberately targeting them to send a message to the defense bar to switch sides at their own peril — and in retaliation for the blog. “I think they’re being vindictive,” said Aronson of the Aronson Law Firm in Pinecrest. “They’re just going after me for blood. They’re trying to grind me down, no question.” But Royal Caribbean lawyer Curtis Mase denies that. “This is not remotely personal,” said Mase of Mase Lara Eversole of Miami. “We’ve all been friends for a long time, and we’ll still be friends when this is over. I just think a fair and reasonable period of time for Mr. Aronson to wait before switching sides would have been two to three years.” Aronson and Walker are hardly the first lawyers to draw flak from the cruise lines for switching sides. A decade ago, John “Jack” Hickey, a former president of the Dade County Bar Association, said Carnival Cruise Lines filed several motions to disqualify him from cases several years after he switched sides. The motions failed in trial court and before the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal. The issue raises questions about just how much time, if any, should transpire before lawyers are allowed to sue a company they formerly represented, in the event they have proprietary information about the company. Case law exists on both sides of the issue. “This comes up all the time, particularly when attorneys work for insurance companies and decide to go on their own, but it crosses all industries,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center in Davie. He said there is no clear answer, and judges must rule on a case-by-case issue. Fence-jumping defense attorneys have inside information on experts, settlement thresholds and firm strategy that other plaintiff attorneys don’t have, Jarvis said. But the more time passes, the more the information fades, and in five years, Aronson “won’t have any more insight than any other attorney.” On the other hand, he said, “attorneys have a right to make a living. Let’s be honest: Why do you hire someone like this? The attorney is trading on his experience.” In fact, Aronson said he had no choice but to take plaintiff work to feed his family. “I have a wife and two children in graduate school, and I have to make a living,” he said. “I didn’t switch because the grass was greener. There just happened to be some grass on the other side of the fence.” Aronson adds that he is also suing two other Miami-based cruise lines — Carnival and Norwegian — which he previously defended, and they have filed no disqualification motions. Over the past year, he teamed up with Walker of Miami’s Walker & O’Neill, a prominent cruise plaintiff attorney, on eight or so federal and state cases against Royal Caribbean. The cruise line’s lawyers began generating motions in June to disqualify both attorneys, alleging Aronson’s inside knowledge tainted both lawyers. In one motion in a Miami federal case, Royal Caribbean alleged Aronson counseled the company on confidential internal risk management and litigation strategy, gave attorney-client advice on handling crew and guest claims, and frequently conducted conferences with adjusters on defense strategies in preparation for depositions. “The knowledge Aronson possesses is special to him because of its breadth, scope and confidential nature,” the motion stated. “That information is now generally known among plaintiffs’ attorneys and provides Aronson and now Walker with a substantial tactical advantage.” Royal Caribbean argues Aronson was treated like an employee and had “unfettered daily access,” using a vendor badge that gave him access to files containing confidential information on internal claims valuations. The company cites the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct on conflicts with former clients, which bars representation on a “substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.” But Aronson and Walker say that Rule 4.1-9 was loosened in 2006 to give attorneys more latitude in switching sides. “I don’t have any secret knowledge that couldn’t be gathered through the normal discovery process or that is not already known,” Aronson said. “If I’m handling a slip-and-fall case, the only real issues are what substance was on the deck and what kind of shoes the person was wearing.” The three cases in which Royal Caribbean has filed a disqualification motion against Aronson and Walker include two Miami federal cases involving passengers injured on the Flow Rider boogie boards and a state court case involving an employee who fell while carrying a pot of chicken. Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Pedro P. Echarte Jr. denied the disqualification motions. The third case before Judge Federico Moreno of the Southern District of Florida is pending. In a Sept. 7 ruling, O’Sullivan agreed with Aronson that Royal Caribbean has not shown the boogie board case bears any similarity to previous cases Aronson has handled, particularly since the Flow Rider was not in use until after Aronson stopped defending RCL. Echarte also ruled against RCL without explanation about two weeks ago. Mase said he has appealed O’Sullivan’s ruling to Judge Paul Huck of the Southern District of Florida and has not decided whether to appeal Echarte’s ruling yet. Meanwhile, Aronson and Walker have filed motions for sanctions in a bid to recover tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

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