In 1920, the United States Congress enacted the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Originally, the purpose of DOHSA was to help the widows of seamen who died in accidents at sea. Under DOHSA, a widow could file a wrongful death action against the seaman’s employer or the owner of the vessel on which the seaman was working at the time of his death. The scope of DOHSA has been greatly expanded since its enactment.
DOHSA applies to the death of an individual that is caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or a default on the high seas beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States and to commercial aviation accidents that occur beyond 12 nautical miles from the shore of the United States. DOHSA does not apply to crashes involving non-commercial aircraft, such as corporate, privately owned or military airplanes.
Under DOHSA, the spouse, parent, child or dependent relative of the person who died in the accident may file a wrongful death action against the person or entity that is responsible for the accident. For example, the wife of a passenger who died in a commercial airplane crash could sue the airline for wrongful death under DOHSA if the crash occurred more than 12 nautical miles from the U.S. coast.
If the accident occurs less than the requisite number of nautical miles from the U.S. coast, a relative of the deceased person may still file a wrongful death action against the responsible party, but the action will be governed by state law rather than DOHSA. A state law action may be preferable because a plaintiff may recover punitive damages and damages for the conscious pain and suffering of the deceased person. Such damages may not be recovered under DOHSA.
Originally, DOHSA limited a plaintiff’s recovery to his or her “pecuniary loss,” i.e., the purely financial loss caused by the death. However, Congress amended DOHSA in 2000 to permit damages for “loss of care, comfort, and companionship.” The amendment applies to commercial airplane crashes that occur after July 16, 1996.
Under DOHSA, a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages or damages for the conscious pain and suffering of the deceased person.
A wrongful death action under DOHSA must be filed within three years of the date of the person’s death.
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