Barbara Lagoa
Barbara Lagoa (J. Albert Diaz)

A state appellate court reversed the awarding of nearly $286,000 attorney fees for a former Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. worker who won a personal injury award against his former employer.

A three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal had upheld the attorney fee award in August 2012, finding Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer D. Bailey correctly interpreted the law.

The appellate decision, though, went against a number of federal courts that have found state laws on attorney fees are pre-empted by federal maritime laws.

Royal Caribbean asked for all the judges on the Third DCA to review the decision en banc.

The issue emanates from a lawsuit brought by Byron Cox, a former Royal Caribbean employee. He sued after he was injured while aboard one of Royal Caribbean’s vessels, alleging Jones Act negligence, failure to treat, maintenance and cure, unearned wages and unseaworthiness.

Cox slipped and fell while performing his job as a galley utility pot washer on Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas on Jan. 12, 2004. He won a $1.4 million jury verdict two years later.

Because he had served an offer of judgment in an effort to settle the case before trial, Bailey held that Cox was entitled to attorney fees and costs under Florida law.

On the initial appeal, Royal Caribbean argued that Florida law governing offers of judgment conflicted with federal maritime law.

The Third DCA held “Florida’s rules relating to offers of judgment are an integral part of this state’s management of its courts’ proceedings and do not conflict with federal admiralty law.”

Numerous federal courts have criticized that decision and the Third DCA sought to rectify its original ruling in Wednesday’s en banc opinion written by Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Citing a number of cases, Lagoa wrote: “We agree that Florida’s offer of judgment statutes conflicts with the general rule of federal maritime law that parties pay their own fees absent an exception, not applicable here.”

Lagoa said the Third DCA, in interests of conformity in exercising admiralty jurisdiction, recedes from a ruling it made in 1992 that was cited by Bailey and the initial appellate panel.

The appellate court was adhering to Royal Caribbean Corp. v. Modesto, finding that “Florida’s rules relating to offers of judgment are an integral part of this state’s management of its courts’ proceedings and do not conflict with federal admiralty law.”

However, panel upholding the recent attorney fee award noted that most likely Modesto was in error.

Phone calls to two of Cox’s attorneys, William F. Fabra and Elizabeth K. Russo, were not returned by deadline.

Attorney Domingo C. Rodriguez, a partner at Rodriguez Schooley in Coral Gables who represented Royal Caribbean at trial, said the Third DCA had no choice but to correct Modesto because uniformity in admiralty is important.

Attorney Dinah Stein, a partner at Hicks, Porter, Ebenfeld & Stein in Coral Gables, argued the appeal for Royal Caribbean.

“They basically just brought the law in our district in line with general maritime law around the country,” Rodriguez said. “There has been a lot of criticism of Modesto in both state and federal courts, and it caused confusion.”

Rodriguez said Cox died a few years ago while the attorney fee issue lived on.