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What is the Death on the High Seas Act?

Death on high seas act

Posted on September 18, 2019

 

If someone you love has been killed while at sea, or due to an accident that occurred at sea, you need to know the laws that govern whether or not you can secure compensation for your loss. The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), applies when “the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States.”

When a person dies on at sea or due to an incident that occurred on the sea, their surviving family members can face a myriad of laws. Today, we want to discuss DOHSA, when it applies, and what kind of compensation is available for surviving family members. 

The Death on the High Seas Act

Deaths that occur within three nautical miles of shore are covered under state law, general maritime law, or the Jones Act. DOHSA only applies to deaths beyond the territorial seas of the states or the US (three nautical miles). DOHSA applies to all decedents whether they are maritime workers or not. This can include the death of cruise ship passengers.

What kind of damages are available under DOHSA?

Under DOHSA, those allowed to bring claims include the decedent’s:

  • Spouse (those who were married at the time of death. Can include common-law spouses as long as common law marriage is applicable in the state the couple lived in. Divorces spouses are not deemed to be beneficiaries)
  • Parent (as long as the parents were dependent on the decedent)
  • Child (biological children as well as stepchildren)
  • Dependent relative (such as a sibling)

These individuals can recover damages for pecuniary loss. This means damages that can be calculated, such as:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Loss of inheritance
  • Loss of financial support

DOHSA, as a contrast to most wrongful death claims, does not allow for survivors to recover damages for suffered by the deceased such as pre-death medical expenses, pre-death pain and suffering, mental anguish damages, etc. 

The damages that are available under DOHSA are much more limited in scope than damages available under general maritime law, state law, and federal law. 

Why use the Death on the High Seas Act to recover compensation?

DOHSA may be the only remedy survivors have available to them. When this act applies, surviving family members cannot file claims under general maritime law or state law. 

  • DOHSA preempts these other laws. 

You should know that DOHSA does not preempt the Jones Act, which allows for death claims against a deceased seaman’s employer. The Jones Act applies whether or not the death happened inside or outside of US territorial waters. Under these cases, surviving family members are afforded a much broader range of compensation. 

How long do I have to file a claim through DOHSA?

DOHSA claims must be filed within three years from the date of death. Please note that this time frame may be less depending on the conditions of the deceased’s travel. Some cruise ship passengers’ ticket contract may reduce the three-year time frame to one year. 

Speak with an attorney today

Because maritime law is so complex, you need to be sure you understand all of your options when you love a loved one. A qualified and experienced lawyer will be able to guide you through the complexities of these laws so you can pursue the maximum compensation for your loss.