Seafaring has always been a dangerous occupation. When the American colonies inherited their basic legal code from Britain, even before U.S. independence, we kept alive one important tradition: a separate law for people who work on or near the water. Admiralty law—now more often called maritime law—is a separate branch of legal practice dealing with marine trade, shipping, transportation over water, and related shore and dock activities. The idea was that these special laws for seafarers, like the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, would better protect people who are hurt while working in marine trades.
These laws also protect the family members of workers who are killed while working on a vessel or an offshore drilling rig. If your spouse is involved in a fatal accident on the water, you may have the right to pursue a wrongful death claim on your spouse’s behalf. However, the laws that cover workers who are killed on the water are completely different from the wrongful death laws on land. Because they are so different, many families who have lost loved ones don’t really understand their rights to compensation until they speak with an attorney who has a deep understanding of these laws.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)
Although grieving families are sometimes unsure if they want to take legal action, wrongful death lawsuits are important. They force employers to think hard about safety and avoid reckless actions that can endanger others. They provide relief for families who have unfairly suffered an unthinkable loss, and they sometimes help set a precedent for changes that protect other families from similar losses.
Until the early twentieth century, there was no wrongful death doctrine under maritime law. Congress created the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) in 1920 to provide a limited wrongful death benefit for fatal accidents on the water. DOHSA allows surviving family members to sue the ship owner or employer when a crewman dies because of negligent behavior or the ship’s unseaworthiness. While not every family is eligible for these benefits, investigating your family’s rights with an attorney can help you access the compensation you deserve and potentially hold the employer responsible for your loved one’s death.
Four Considerations That Affect Death on the High Seas Act Claims
DOHSA includes significant restrictions that limit when lawsuits can be filed. Some of these limits are expressly found in the original law, and other limits have been applied by years of federal court precedents. There are four major considerations that determine whether a wrongful death claim can proceed under DOHSA:
- Location of the fatal accident. The death must occur aboard a vessel on the open sea, at least three nautical miles from the shore of any state. It may be necessary to determine the location of the vessel from the ship’s log. If the vessel was within the three-mile zone of state control, the case cannot continue under the Death on the High Seas Act, but it is possible that state law may permit a wrongful death claim.
- Role of the decedent. The person who was killed must have been a seaman employed on the vessel. He or she need not have been on duty at the time of the fatal accident, but he or she must have had a regular and continuing job that furthered the mission of the ship.
- Limitation on who can file. The personal representative of the decedent must file the lawsuit. This role is usually limited to the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate. The only people who can benefit from a DOHSA claim are the deceased person’s spouse, parents, children, and other dependent relatives.
- The grounds claimed. The family of the seaman must be prepared to show that the seaman’s death was caused either by negligence or by the unseaworthiness of the vessel.
Note that the Death on the High Seas Act may take precedence over other laws that compensate families for a wrongful death at sea. If you have a close family member who has passed away due to an accident at sea, it’s important to contact an attorney who has experience handling maritime wrongful death cases so that your rights under various federal laws can be untangled.
Answers to Your Questions About the Death on the High Seas Act
Many families have questions about pursuing a legal claim for their loved one’s death. Some of the most common questions include:
- What kinds of damages are available under the Death on the High Seas Act? Damages in this type of action may include compensation for loss of financial support, loss of care, loss of nurturing and guidance, loss of household help, funeral costs, medical expenses incurred prior to death, and possibly more. Additional laws may also supplement this type of action and provide other types of damages.
- Is it right to profit from someone’s death? By acting negligently, the people responsible for your loved one’s death directly harmed you. You have been deprived of the income, companionship, and attention that your relative would have given you for years to come. Your lawsuit isn’t an attempt to profit from the death, but it is your chance to reclaim a small measure of the benefits the deceased person would have shared with you.
- What happens if DOHSA doesn’t apply to my case? If your loved one did not die on the high seas, or you otherwise do not qualify for relief pursuant to the Death on the High Seas Act, that is not the end of the story. You may still be able to recover damages pursuant other maritime laws. The attorneys with VB Attorneys have extensive experience pursuing wrongful death claims on behalf of families of deceased seamen. We know the law, and we can tell you if your case falls within the scope of the Death on the High Seas Act or another statute.
The death of a loved one leaves a lot of questions. Our attorneys focus on making sure that you understand your rights and can make informed decisions about your case. To learn more, or to start investigating your loved one’s death with our experienced attorneys, reach out to us today at 1-877-724-7800.