Overview of the Death on the High Seas Act

by | Apr 11, 2023 | Maritime Accident, Maritime Injury, Maritime Law, Offshore Accident

The maritime industry has many hazards and risks for workers in many occupations. Unfortunately, sometimes negligent or careless employers are the cause of accidents, injuries, and even deaths. When a maritime worker dies as a result of employer negligence, their family has rights, such as those under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA).

Like other maritime laws, there are specific protections and benefits available under the DOHSA. Below, the maritime injury lawyers at Kherkher Garcia, LLP provide information about the DOHSA and what families can do if they lose a loved one in the maritime industry.

What is the Death on the High Seas Act?

The Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, is a federal law that provides legal remedies to the surviving family members of individuals who die as a result of accidents or injuries that occur on the high seas. This includes deaths that occur on vessels, and deaths that occur in aircraft crashes.

The DOHSA has some similarities to other maritime laws, such as The Jones Act, but it is not limited to a particular classification of maritime worker. Rather than applying only to seamen, the DOHSA applies to:

    • Workers or passengers on vessels who are killed outside the territorial limit (three miles)
    • Workers or passengers on commercial airliners who are killed outside the international waters limit (12 miles)

When a DOHSA claim applies to a particular incident, it is the parties’ exclusive remedy for wrongful death claims. Furthermore, a DOHSA claim preempts any additional claims for wrongful death or pre-death pain and suffering under state law or general maritime law. The DOHSA does not necessarily prevent the beneficiaries from making claims based on their own pain and suffering, however, if they personally witnessed the incident that caused the death.

The Difference Between DOHSA and the Jones Act

The DOHSA and the Jones Act are two federal laws that provide legal remedies for individuals who are injured or killed while working at sea. However, there are some key differences between these two laws. The most important difference is:

DOHSA applies to individuals who are killed on the high seas, which are defined as more than three nautical miles from the shore of any state or territory. It allows the surviving family members of the deceased person to recover damages for their pecuniary losses, such as loss of financial support and loss of services. DOHSA does not cover pain and suffering or emotional distress suffered by family members.

In contrast, the Jones Act applies to seamen who are injured or killed while working on a vessel in navigable waters, which are defined as waters that can be used for interstate or international commerce. The Jones Act allows injured seamen to recover damages for their injuries, including medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In cases of death, the seaman’s family members may be able to recover damages for their losses.

What Sort of Accidents are Covered Under the Death on the High Seas Act?

There are many types of accidents and incidents that may be covered under the DOHSA. Many of the same injuries and illnesses that are covered under The Jones Act are also covered under DOHSA, with the difference being an injury versus a death. Some of the more common examples of incidents in DOHSA claims include:

    • A collision between two ships
    • A fire on a ship
    • A person falling overboard
    • Defective equipment
    • Mechanical error
    • Failing to follow safety procedures
    • Failing to provide appropriate medical care
    • Incompetence or inadequate training of personnel

Who Can File a Claim Under the Death on the High Seas Act?

DOHSA claims can only be filed by qualified beneficiaries, which includes:

    • Spouse
    • Children
    • Parent
    • Other dependent family members

The list of beneficiaries cannot be changed or expanded for individual circumstances.

Claims Under the Death on the High Seas Act

To bring a claim under the DOHSA, the surviving family members must first establish that the death of their loved one was caused by negligence or carelessness, or was caused by an unseaworthy vessel. In cases involving airliners, family members must similarly establish negligence, carelessness, or unairworthiness.

Once the family members have established that the death was caused by negligence, carelessness, unseaworthiness, or unairworthiness, they must then identify the party or parties that are responsible for the death. This could be the owner of the ship, the captain of the ship, or another person who was involved in the accident.

Damages Available in Death on the High Seas Act Claims

The DOHSA allows surviving family members to recover damages for pecuniary losses they suffered as a result of the death of their loved one. The damages available will depend on the facts of the case. However, generally, the following types of damages may be recoverable:

    • Loss of Support: This includes the value of the financial contributions that the deceased would have made to their family had they survived. It takes into account the deceased’s income, savings, and other financial resources.
    • Loss of Services: This includes the value of the services that the deceased would have provided to their family, such as household chores, childcare, and other tasks that are necessary for daily living.
    • Funeral Expenses: This includes the costs associated with the deceased’s funeral and burial.
    • Pain and Suffering: If the deceased suffered physical or mental pain prior to their death, their family may be able to recover damages for their pain and suffering.

It is important to note that DOHSA does not allow for recovery of damages for the deceased’s own pain and suffering or for the emotional distress suffered by the family members as a result of the death. Additionally, DOHSA does not apply to deaths that occur within the territorial waters of a state or territory. In those cases, state law would apply.

Special Rules for Airliner Crashes on the High Seas

In 2000, Congress amended the DOHSA to broaden the damages available in commercial aviation accident cases. In these cases, family members can now recover compensation for loss of care, comfort, and companionship. These non-pecuniary damages are not generally available in DOHSA claims.

Statute of Limitations for Death on the High Seas Act Claims

The statute of limitations for claims under the DOHSA is generally three years from the date of the death. However, there are some exceptions to this rule that can extend or shorten the time period for filing a claim.

One exception to the three-year rule is when the death was due to an act of war. In such cases, the statute of limitations is extended to five years from the date of the death. Another exception applies when the death was caused by a commercial airline accident on the high seas. In these cases, the statute of limitations is two years from the date of the person’s death, rather than three years.

It is important to note that the statute of limitations can vary depending on the specific circumstances of each case. Therefore, it is important to consult with an experienced maritime attorney to determine the applicable statute of limitations and ensure that your claim is filed within the appropriate time period.

Failing to file a claim within the statute of limitations can result in the claim being barred, which means that the family members of the deceased person will not be able to recover damages for their losses.

Getting Help with Maritime Accident or Death Claims

Maritime law is complex. The most successful claims are those built and litigated by skilled maritime injury lawyers. If your family is grieving the loss of a loved one due to negligence, carelessness, or a defective vessel, Kherkher Garcia can help.

At Kherkher Garcia, our lawyers have more than three decades of experience helping families navigate maritime injury and death claims. We are intimately familiar with maritime laws including the DOHSA, The Jones Act, and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). Our team knows what it takes to prove your claims and get your family the compensation that you deserve.

When you work with Kherkher Garcia, you are getting more than legal representation. You are getting the knowledge and skill of a team of lawyers who are passionate about helping victims and their families recover. You are also getting access to resources that can help you prove your case and win.

If you have questions about the DOHSA or other maritime law, or believe you have a claim, call Kherkher Garcia today for a free case evaluation. Our team is ready to help you at 713-333-1030.

Schedule a free Consultation

Jesus Garcia

Jesus Garcia

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Jesus Garcia. Jesus has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 20 years. He has won $150 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force of nature in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been seriously injured at work or on the road. Abogado Jesus Garcia is bilingual and passionate about being the voice in the courtroom for the spanish speaking community here in Houston, across the state of Texas, and throughout the Nation.

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