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Death on the High Seas Act

Little-known law can yield high settlements in fatal maritime injury lawsuits

In other pages on this site, we have reviewed Worker’s Compensation-like programs that apply to “seamen” ( Jones Act), “longshore and harbor workers” ( Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act), and “offshore” workers (the same benefits generally available to longshore and harbor workers were extended by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act).

In today’s post, the maritime worker injury lawyer at the Doan Law Firm provides an introduction to the “Death on the High Seas Act” and how it can benefit those who have lost a family member to a fatal maritime accident.

What is the Death on the High Seas Act (46 U.S.C. §§ 30301-30308)

The Death on the High Seas Act is a law enacted by the United States Congress in 1920. Its original intent was to permit “… recovery of damages against a shipowner by a spouse, child or dependent family member of a seaman killed in international waters [ > 3 nautical miles from the nearest point of U. S. shoreline] …” in wrongful death cases “… caused by negligence or unseaworthiness.” It was later amended (§ 30307) to apply to wrongful death cases arising out of airline disastersover the high seas that occurbeyond the 12-nautical-mile jurisdiction of U.S. territorial waters.

Death on the High Seas Act lawsuits are tried in federal court

In order to have a successful Death on the High Seas Act lawsuit, youmust be able to prove that the deceased 1) died in an accident that meets the location requirements of the Act and 2) that the accident was due to the negligence of the vessel’s owner or crew, or 3) the vessel was “unseaworthy” for any reason.

Note that the Death on the High Seas Act applies to any crew members and passengers who die as a result of an accident on a vessel that was outside the three-mile limit jurisdiction of the United States when the death occurred. The Act also applies to any death involving a crew member or passenger aboard a commercial aircraft that crashes more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest landfall of the U. S. coastline or the coastline of its territories. However, the Great Lakes are specifically excluded from eligibility under the Act.

Due to the fact thatall deaths that are subject to the Death on the High Seas Act occur in international waters, all lawsuits brought under the Act are tried in federal court regardless of where the victim resided or where the plaintiff(s) live when the case is filed.

As the Act is currently written, and interpreted by the courts,only the following relatives can file a wrongful death claim:

  • a spouse
  • minor or adult children
  • parent
  • dependent family members

Damages available in Death on the High Seas Act lawsuits

As in any other wrongful death lawsuit, the survivor(s) is/are entitled to ask the court to award damages or “compensation” for the death of their family member. According to the Act itself, bothpecuniary (monetary) andnonpecuniary (non-monetary) may be available. However,punitivedamages are not generally available in these lawsuits.

If the court finds that the deceased’s actions contributed to his or her death, the survivor(s) may still collect damages. The amount of damages awarded willfirst be determined andthen reduced by the percentage that the deceased is deemed responsible for their own death.

If damages are awarded, they are awarded to thefamily as a whole rather than to the deceased’s estate or only to the plaintiff(s). The court will distribute any damages to survivors in proportion to the court’s determination of each’s degree of loss.

Contacting a Death on the High Seas Act lawyer

Although the Death on the High Seas Act is relatively unknown outside the legal community, it offers the survivors of these accidental death victims an opportunity for compensation that they may not have known was available.

To arrange a free evaluation of your potential Death on the High Seas lawsuit, you should contact the maritime wrongful death lawyer at the Doan Law Firm via our national hotline, through one of our local offices, or by e-mail.

At the Doan Law Firm, your first consultation with us is always free and does not obligate you to hire us to represent you in your Death on the High Seas Act lawsuit. Should you later decide that we should represent you in court, we are always willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your wrongful death case for trial in exchange for an agreed-upon percentage of the final settlement that we will win for you.

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