Maritime Acts Pages – Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)

In 1920, the Death on the High Seas Act was passed to provide families of shipmen killed in the line of duty with financial compensation (a recompensing claim), whether due to neglect, default, or a wrongful act. The original purpose was solely to provide monetary aid to seafarers’ families. Future amendments extended coverage to various relatives and family members who experience trauma and mental anguish following a death. In a 2000 amendment, claims for deaths involving people killed in aircraft accidents were included in the law.

Provisions of the DOHSA include:

  • The death in question must occur on a vessel that is located more than three miles from the U.S. coast.
  • Shipping companies must be found negligent or to have engaged in unlawful activities, per formal charges, to be held accountable under this Act.
  • Damages are determined by how much financial loss a family bears due to a lack of the seafarer’s income.
  • Injury claims do not apply unless the injured person expires at the time of the incident or sometime over the course of the case.

There are various considerations with the Death on the High Seas Act. To file a recompensing claim in court, statutes of limitations apply but vary with the state. That means time limits vary from one year to up to three years. Qualifications are still limited to immediate relatives, such as spouses, parents, and offspring, although any family member who depends on the person’s earnings may file a claim. Should the plaintiff die during legal action, a personal representative may take over on their behalf.

When a suit is filed, it must be overseen by a nominee (specifically a maritime lawyer), appointed by a court of law. This nominee, rather than any other individual, is only allowed to file the recompensing suit.

Applying the DOHSA

The law applies if an individual’s death on a vessel if it is more than three nautical miles from a U.S. shoreline. Recovery of finances is possible even in cases of contributory negligence; the degree of such is determined by the court, which can reduce recovery amounts based on the decedent’s level of neglect. Determining exact amounts is accomplished via a complex computation process. The law also covers a foreign cause of action under another country’s law, which may be tried in a United States court as a civil action in admiralty.

Coverage of commercial aviation accident deaths is available if the incident occurs more than 12 nautical miles from shore. Punitive damages are not recoverable, although family members may recover nonpecuniary damages such as those for loss of care, comfort, and companionship. The Act does not apply if the death in question happened less than 12 miles from shore. It also does not affect state laws pertaining to recoveries or deaths that involve vessels or aircraft in the Great Lakes or within state territorial limits.

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