Death on the High Seas (DOHSA)
“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.”
Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) covers any death occurring beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of any State. Only the personal representative of the deceased individual can bring a DOHSA action, and that action is pursued on behalf of, or for the benefit of the decedent’s spouse, child(ren), parent or other financially dependent relative. DOHSA actions only provide for the recovery of monetary damages and does not provide for recovery of non-pecuniary damages.
Damages under DOHSA are determined based upon the actual or projected value of the financial benefit that would have been received from the decedent. Under this theory, dependent children can recover for the value of the care and guidance they would have received from the decedent parent. A spouse can recover for the actual value of the financial contribution the decedent would have made to the family had he lived, less any amount determined to have provided for the care and maintenance of the decedent personally. Therefore, the recovery can be reduced by the amount of resources deemed to provide for the consumption and needs of the decedent had he lived.
A simplified method of determining the needs or consumption of the decedent is to take equally apportion the family income to each member and deduct that equal portion from the projected income to account for the decedent’s anticipated expenditure.
The DOHSA does not provide for a loss of consortium or loss of society claim, however, the spouse can recover for the monetary value of the household services the decedent would have provided. This portion of recovery is based on the number of hours the beneficiaries would have expected to receive in services from the decedent and calculated based upon an hourly rate for those services projected out for the decedent’s life expectancy.
DOHSA generally does not provide for “survival” causes of action. The exception to this rule applies when a party sustains an injury on the high seas and dies during the pendency of a personal injury action being pursued in federal court in admiralty.
“If a person die[s] as the result of such wrongful act, negligence or default as is mentioned in § 761 of this title during the pendency in a court of admiralty of the United States of a suit to recover damages for personal injuries in respect of such act, negligence or default, the personal representative of the decedent may be substituted as a party and the suit may proceed as a suit under this chapter for the recovery of the compensation provided in § 762 of this title. 46 USC § 765
Other than entitlement for recovery under § 765 of DOHSA, the act does not provide for recovery for pre-death pain and suffering as such non-economic damages are not allowed.
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