Death on the High Seas Act

Kimberly Wald, Attorney, Kelley | Uustal

The Death on the High Seas Act, also known as DOHSA or 46 USC §§30301-3030, is a United States admiralty law that was enacted by Congress in 1920.  This Act extends Federal admiralty power to deaths which occur on the “high seas,” meaning deaths that occur more than 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States.  (One nautical mile is approximately 1.1508 regular mile.)  Also, it is important to note that the 3 nautical miles only applies to the United States shoreline.  If a person is travelling in another country and dies when they are 1 or 2 nautical miles off shore, their death will still fall under DOHSA since they are more than 3 nautical miles from the United States shoreline.

            Further, pursuant to 46 USC §§30302, DOHSA applies “when the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default.”  The person or persons who are entitled to bring a claim under DOHSA are the personal representative(s) of the decedent, for the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative.  The type of recovery claimants may seek are “fair compensation for pecuniary loss.”  Also, the Court will make the ultimate decision regarding apportionment of damages to the different claimants, in proportion to the loss each individual person sustained.

            Additionally, any alleged contributory negligence of the decedent does not bar recovery to the claimants – the Court will merely consider the degree of negligence of the decedent and reduce the recovery to the claimants by that percentage.  Also interestingly enough, DOHSA specifically prohibits claims where deaths occur on the Great Lakes or on waters within the territorial limits of a State. 

Moreover, DOHSA may or may not apply depending on the “classification” of the decedent.  For example, DOHSA applies differently for seamen, longshoremen, harbor workers, and passengers.  First, if a seaman dies as a result of their employer’s negligence, even if it occurs more than 3 miles offshore, the Jones Act applies and not DOHSA.  (We will discuss the Jones Act in a later blog post.)  On the other hand, if a longshore or harbor worker dies more than 3 miles offshore, DOHSA applies regardless of fault.  Finally, if a passenger dies on the high seas, they too fall under DOHSA.  For all of these scenarios, DOHSA does not affect the law of a State regarding the right to recover for death.

One particularly interesting case involving DOHSA arose out of a passenger’s injury while travelling on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship in Cozumel, Mexico.  Lasky v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 850 F. Sup 2d. 1309 (U.S. District Court S.D. Florida, 2012).  In Lasky, the decedent fell and hit his head while he was travelling on Royal Caribbean’s “Navigator of the Seas.”  At the time of his fall, the boat was docked in Cozumel, Mexico.  The decent did not die immediately as a result of his fall, and in fact passed away almost one month later while he was home recovering from his injury.  There was no dispute that at the time of his death, he was not on the “high seas.”  However, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that since the tort which caused his death occurred while he was on the “high seas,” DOHSA applied to his wife’s civil claim for his wrongful death.

Thus, the take-away is that if you are a passenger, longshore, or harbor worker and die more than 3 nautical miles off U.S. shore, DOHSA will apply to your survivor’s claims.  And, with DOHSA comes all of the other factors of Federal Admiralty law, including a Judge-only trial and some limited types of damages - all which I will discuss in future blog posts!

admiralty law

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