The Death on the High Seas Act and Fatal Maritime Accidents
When a person dies due to negligence or misconduct by someone else, their family often can bring a wrongful death claim under state law. A federal law known as the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) serves a parallel purpose for certain maritime deaths. DOHSA applies to fatal accidents that occur more than three nautical miles from the shore of the US. A DOHSA claim generally must be brought within three years of the accident. Remedies under DOHSA are more limited than those provided by state laws or general maritime laws, which govern accidents that occur within three miles of the shore.
The Distance Requirement of DOHSA
The accident that resulted in the death must have occurred more than three miles off shore. However, the death or the wrongdoing or negligence that resulted in the death does not need to have occurred more than three miles off shore.
As a federal law, DOHSA preempts state laws and general principles of maritime common law. However, the family of a deceased seaman may bring a claim against the seaman’s employer under the Jones Act, which could result in greater damages. They can bring a Jones Act claim concurrently with a DOHSA claim if the seaman’s employer and a party other than their employer both were at fault for the seaman’s death. The family of a victim also can bring a civil claim under the laws of a foreign country in a US court, but they cannot bring this claim concurrently with a DOHSA claim against the same defendant. However, they can bring concurrent claims under foreign law and DOHSA if those claims involve different defendants.
Damages Provided by DOHSA
DOHSA differs from state wrongful death laws by limiting damages to the pecuniary (financial) losses suffered by qualifying family members of the victim. These include a spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative. Non-economic damages are not recoverable, such as loss of consortium by the spouse of the victim. This can dramatically reduce the total compensation available to family members.
Damages incurred by the victim, such as medical and funeral expenses, also are usually not recoverable because these losses are incurred by the estate. If a qualifying family member paid these bills, though, they may get reimbursed through a DOHSA claim.
Survival Actions Under DOHSA
While DOHSA generally does not permit the victim’s estate to bring a survival action for damages incurred by the victim, an exception applies if the victim filed a lawsuit for injuries suffered on the high seas and died from their injuries before the lawsuit was resolved. The estate then can bring a claim under DOHSA for medical bills and other economic damages. This exception makes it critical to promptly retain an attorney and file a lawsuit when a victim has suffered life-threatening injuries on the high seas. Immediate legal action can preserve the right of the estate to recover compensation for the substantial medical bills that may arise in these situations.
Multiple Events Leading to Death
Sometimes more than one event contributes to the death of a victim. If some events that contributed to the death occurred on shore or within three nautical miles from the shore of the US, DOHSA potentially might not prevent the estate or family from bringing claims under wrongful death laws. These claims could be brought only against defendants who did not cause the events on the high seas but caused the events on or near the shore that contributed to the death. However, the law in this area is unclear and evolving.
Plane Crashes Under DOHSA
People usually associate deaths on the high seas with maritime vessels. However, some plane crashes occur over the sea. DOHSA applies to commercial aviation accidents that occur more than 12 nautical miles from the shore of the US. If a crash occurs within 12 nautical miles from the shore, state wrongful death laws and general principles of maritime law apply.
Family members of plane crash victims can access much broader remedies under DOHSA than families of other victims. They can recover non-economic damages involving the loss of the care, comfort, and companionship provided by the victim. However, non-economic damages suffered by the victim, such as their pain and suffering before death, remain unavailable in DOHSA claims after plane crashes.