As international travel and transportation of passengers began to increase at the turn of the 20th Century, so did injuries and deaths due to accidents involving such transportation. To address this, the United States Congress enacted the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) in 1920.
“Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of any State, or the District of Columbia, or the Territories or dependencies of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may maintain a suit for damages in the district courts of the United States, in admiralty, for the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s wife, husband, parent, child, or dependent relative against the vessel, person, or corporation which would have been liable if death had not ensued.”
Under DOHSA, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible for the decedent’s death that occurred in international waters. An action under DOHSA is the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative. The United State’s Supreme Court has held that when DOHSA applies, the decedent’s personal representative can seek no other wrongful death remedy under either general maritime law or state law. This means that when the death occurs beyond 3 nautical miles from shore the survival action must be brought under DOHSA and not general maritime law. DOHSA applies to foreign territorial waters as well as the high seas.
The personal representative must bring their suit within 3 years of the death, or they will lose their ability to bring a claim. Damages recoverable under DOHSA include loss of support, loss of service, funeral expenses, and loss of inheritance. However, the decedent’s beneficiaries cannot recover for loss of consortium, loss of society or punitive damages under DOHSA.
DOHSA has also been extended to include statutorily permitted family members whose love one’s death arises out of commercial aviation (airline disasters) over the high seas. However, if the death from commercial aviation occurs within 12 miles or closer to the shore of any state, the decedent’s family cannot bring a cause of action under DOSHA.
If you have lost a loved one as a result of a death on the high seas or within foreign territorial waters, or want to learn more about whether the case falls under DOHSA, contact Gilman & Allison, LLP for a free consultation and evaluation.