Death On The High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Who May Bring An Action Under DOHSA?The personal representative of any person (seaman, passenger or guest, passenger and crew on aircraft that crash over the high seas, and even those killed in foreign territorial waters), who died beyond 3 nautical miles from shore, may bring a DOHSA claim on behalf of the decedent’s beneficiaries.
Who Is A Beneficiary Under DOHSA?DOHSA allows recovery on behalf of the decedent’s beneficiaries. Beneficiaries have been determined to include:
- Surviving spouse – A wife or husband who was married to the decedent at the time of death. Common law spouses (as long as their common law marriage complies with the applicable state law) have been held to be a surviving spouse. Divorced spouses, however, are not deemed to be beneficiates.
- Children – Biological children as well as stepchildren who have suffered pecuniary losses due to the death have been held to be beneficiaries.
- Parents – Dependant parents are considered beneficiaries. Non-dependant parents, however, are not beneficiaries.
- Siblings – Siblings who are dependant on the decedent may be deemed dependants.
When Must I File A DOHSA Claim?A DOHSA claim must be filed within three years of the date of death. However, if the decedent was traveling as a passenger on board a cruise ship, the ticket contract may well reduce the three year time period to one year.
What Types Of Damages Are Recoverable Under A DOHSA Claim?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, the following damages are available:
- Financial Support and Contribution – The financial contributions that the decedent would have made to his spouse and dependants over the course of his/her work life expectancy less any amount determined to be for the care and maintenance of the decedent personally.
- Loss of Services – The monetary value of services the decedent would have provided to the beneficiaries around the home.
- Nurture to Dependant Children – The value of care, guidance and training to the decedent’s children.
- Loss of Inheritance – The value of the decedent’s monetary support over the life expectancy of the decedent to dependants.
- Funeral Expenses – Funeral expenses are allowed to the point actually paid by the beneficiaries.
- Pre-Death Pain and Suffering – Monitory value of the conscious pain and suffering cause by the negligent act the decedent felt prior to his death. This damage is only recoverable if the decedent dies while pursuing a personal injury claim in federal admiralty court for the negligent acts which ultimately lead to his/her death.
What Types Of Damages Are Not Recoverable Under DOHSA?The measure of recovery under a DOHSA is limited to pecuniary damages and, therefore, non-pecuniary losses are not recoverable, to wit:
- Grief, bereavement, and mental anguish of dependants are not compensable;
- Loss of society and consortium are also not recoverable because these are non pecuniary losses.
What About Commercial Aviation Accidents?Following the 1996 TWA 800 crash, Congress amended DOHSA to preclude its application in the case of commercial aviation accidents occurring “on the high seas” twelve nautical miles or closer to the territory of the United States. In such a case, state, federal and “other appropriate law” apply. The amendment also created a new cause of action for non-pecuniary damages for deaths resulting from a commercial aviation accident occurring beyond twelve nautical miles from the United States. These damages, unlike a DOHSA claim for a seaman, include: “loss of care, comfort and companionship”, but not punitive damages unless available under state law.
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