What Is The “Death On The High Seas Act”?

Mar 30, 2022 | Jones Act And Maritime Law, Work Accidents, Wrongful Death

death on the high seas act

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) gives the surviving family members of anyone killed due to negligence at sea the right to claim compensation from the responsible party. It states:

“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, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible.”

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Death on the High Seas Act into law in 1920. Before its adoption, there was no way to seek compensation after a wrongful death at sea.

Compensation Under the Death on the High Seas Act

The Death on the High Seas Act allows the decedent’s family members to claim compensation for “pecuniary losses” (damages a court can calculate with a high precision). 

Many DOHSA cases result in plaintiffs recovering compensation for the following damages:

  • Loss of financial support
  • Loss of service
  • Loss of inheritance
  • Burial expenses
  • Unpaid wages

Families cannot recover non-pecuniary losses under the DOHSA. As a result, damages like mental anguish and loss of consortium often go uncompensated. 

The number of compensation families can recover under the DOHSA depends on the decedent’s age, health, and income before their death. Families of young, healthy, high-earning seafarers typically receive the most substantial payouts. 

Survival Actions Under the Death on the High Seas Act

In most wrongful death suits, plaintiffs can automatically claim compensation for losses incurred by the decedent before their death (such as medical expenses). Under the DOHSA, however, it can be a little more complicated to assert such a claim.

When a wrongful death occurs on the high seas, the estate can only claim compensation for the damages suffered by the decedent before their death if:

  • The decedent filed a personal injust lawsuit against the at-fault party, and
  • The decedent died from their injuries during their lawsuit

If these conditions are met, the decedent’s estate can demand compensation for their financial losses.

If these conditions are not met, it becomes impossible for the plaintiff to assert a claim for the damages incurred by the decedent before their death.

How Contributory Negligence Can Impact Compensation in DOHSA Cases

46 U.S. Code § 30304 (a section of the Death on the High Seas Act) states:

“Contributory negligence of the decedent is not a bar to recovery. The court shall consider the degree of negligence of the decedent and reduce the recovery accordingly.”

This rule means a court may not dismiss a compensation claim under the DOHSA because the negligent actions of the deceased person are partly to blame for their death.

However, courts can reduce the amount of compensation the decedent’s family receives according to the percentage of fault they hold.

In other words, if a plaintiff incurs $100,000 in financial losses as a result of an accident at sea for which the decedent was 30 percent at-fault, they will not receive $100,000 in compensation. Instead, the court will deduct $30,000 and award them $70,000.

Who Can Claim Compensation After a Wrongful Death on the High Seas?

When a person loses their life as a result of a wrongful or negligent act more than three nautical miles offshore, the following parties may file a compensation claim under the Death on the High Seas Act: 

  • Their spouse
  • Their parent
  • Their child, or
  • Their dependent relative

Of course, these individuals do not have to pursue compensation alone. They may hire a skilled personal injury attorney to file the necessary paperwork on their behalf.

A decedent’s friends, unmarried partner, and distant relatives do not have the right to file a claim for compensation under the DOHSA.

Statute of Limitations Under the Death on the High Seas Act

Personal injury lawyers typically advise their clients to begin pursuing compensation as soon as possible after a wrongful death at sea. In most cases, the statute of limitations under the Death on the High Seas Act is three years.

In DOHSA cases where the United States is a defendant, the statute of limitations is reduced to just two years. However, if the seaman was employed by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), they must file an administrative claim at least 60 days before closing this two-year window.

Plaintiffs who fail to take legal action before the statute of limitations expires may lose their right to recover compensation from the responsible party.

Special Rules for Commercial Aviation Crashes on the High Seas

Though the Death on the High Seas Act was initially signed into law in 1920, it was amended in 2000 to include deaths caused by commercial aviation accidents.

The DOHSA treats plane crashes differently than accidents that occur on ships. For example, in commercial aviation death cases, the DOHSA only applies if the incident happened more than 12 miles off the coast of the United States (instead of three miles for boat-related deaths).

The family members of people who died in plane crashes within 12 miles of shore must typically pursue compensation under state law or general maritime law.

However, when plaintiffs can file commercial aviation death lawsuits under the DOHSA, they can often recover non-pecuniary damages, like loss of care, comfort, and companionship.

These damages are not generally available to the families of individuals who die in boat accidents on the high seas.

Experienced Death on the High Seas Act Lawyers in Houston

If you recently lost a loved one in an offshore accident and believe you might be eligible to claim compensation under the Death on the High Seas Act, please do not hesitate to contact the team at Williams Hart & Boundas Boundas LLP. Our law firm has been standing up for Texans for years, and we are ready to go to battle for you and your family.

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only. The provision of this material does not create an attorney-client relationship between the firm and the reader and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this newsletter are not a substitute for legal counsel. Do not take action in reliance on the contents of this material without seeking the advice of counsel.

The information contained in this blog may or may not reflect the most current legal developments. Accordingly, information in this blog is not promised or guaranteed to be correct or complete, and should not be relied upon as such. Readers should conduct their own appropriate legal research.


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