Death on the High Seas Act

If person dies at sea, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) can authorize compensation for family members. 46 U.S.C. 30301 to 30308. DOHSA applies if an injury resulting in death occurs on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from shore of the territorial limits of the United States. The death must be due either to negligence or poor judgment by a vessel owner or due to a vessel not being seaworthy.

DOHSA is considered a gap filling (remedial) measure to complement other maritime laws. Passed in 1920, its purpose is to hold maritime employers accountable for safety of their ships while at sea. In that same year, the Merchant Marine Act was passed, which includes workers’ compensation type of protections to seamen working at sea (typically referred to as the Jones Act). The nature of the activity of the deceased, the activity of the vessel, and the location of the vessel at the time of the incident, all factor into which of these two laws apply.

Limited Compensation is Available

DOHSA provides fair compensation for the pecuniary loss experienced by certain family members. Courts apportion the compensation among the family in proportion to the loss each has sustained. Compensation includes:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Loss of financial support
  • Counseling expenses
  • Other financial costs due to the death

The spouse, children, parents, and dependent family members are the only family members entitled to make a claim. Other family members or the estate of the deceased cannot seek compensation under the Act.

Calculating loss of financial support usually involves evaluating the loss of anticipated future income. Both positive and negative factors are evaluated. A positive factor would be potential for merit increases in salary. A negative factor would be if wages in the deceased’s industry are declining.

Determining other financial costs will often involve loss of services performed by the deceased such as handling household chores. The award would be measured by the cost of paying for the lost services. Another cost that is considered is related to the loss of nurture, guidance, care, and instruction. This typically involves loss to minor children of the oversight of a parent. The lack of guidance has to be connected somehow to a subsequent financial loss.

Non-pecuniary costs are not covered. For example, a decedent’s pre-death pain and suffering, or loss of consortium suffered by the surviving spouse, are not covered. In addition, claims cannot be made under DOHSA for any pre-death medical expenses that may have been incurred. Accordingly, if a person is severely injured at sea and survives and is given extensive medical treatment but later dies from the injury, the cost of medical treatment would not be covered under DOHSA.

Handling a DOHSA Case

Minimum requirements for a successful DOHSA case include specifying which admiralty law applies in the pleading and establishing either the negligence of the vessel owner or lack of seaworthiness of the vessel. The case must be filed within the mandatory three-year statute of limitations period.

Courts apply the concept of contributory negligence to DOHSA cases involving negligence of the vessel owner. If the decedent was in part responsible, then the surviving family can still bring a case. Courts can consider the actions of the deceased for contributory negligence and will reduce any award based on the degree of the deceased’s actions that are found to have contributed to his or her own death.

For cases involving unseaworthy vessels, contributory negligence by the deceased does not come into play. Failure to supply a safe ship results in liability irrespective of fault and irrespective of any intervening negligence by crew members.

While DOHSA cases generally bar claims of wrongful death under state jurisdiction, if the injury causing death occurs within three nautical miles of the U.S., then the General Maritime Law can allow DOHSA remedies to be supplemented by an applicable state wrongful death statute.

Since DOHSA only provides pecuniary damages, it is important for the lawyer handling to case to evaluate the cause of action for other possible claims. Maritime law is always evolving. Be sure to seek counsel from lawyers having prior experience handling maritime cases.

South Jersey Maritime Accident Lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. Handle Death on the High Seas Act Claims

If someone you love has died in a maritime accident, there are a lot of issues to resolve. The thoughtful and experienced South Jersey maritime accident lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. are ready to assist you in seeking just compensation for your loss. We have offices conveniently located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and serve clients throughout the South Jersey areas of Cape May, Gloucester and Wildwood. We also have offices in Pinehurst, North Carolina to serve clients in the surrounding area. Call 888-999-1962 or submit an online contact form to set up a free initial consultation.