If you have lost a loved one at sea and the cause of death was negligence, default, or a wrongful act, you may be entitled to pecuniary damages through the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). The Act passed in 1920 as a way to provide compensation for the families of seamen killed on the job while out to sea. Being out to sea is always risky, and when there is negligence of default of some kind involved, it increases the risks even more. If your loved one died in this way, know your rights and rely on an experienced maritime lawyer to help you make a claim.
Qualifying for DOHSA Compensation
This federal act provides compensation for the surviving dependent family members of those workers who die out at sea. The death must have occurred three or more nautical miles from the U.S. shore. The act also only covers those who died working aboard a commercial vessel. Privately-owned and non-commercial ships are not covered by DOHSA.
Anyone who qualifies as a dependent of the deceased may file a claim under the DOHSA to seek compensation. This means someone who was being financially supported by the killed worker and could include a spouse, children, siblings, parents, grandparents, or grandchildren. A dependent filing a claim must be able to prove that negligence, inappropriate judgment, or a wrongful act on the part of the ship owner contributed to the death of the seaman. It also must be proven that the vessel was unseaworthy.
There are many situations that could qualify under these guidelines. For instance, if your loved one worked aboard a ship with equipment that was not properly maintained, that represents both negligence on the part of the owner and an unseaworthy vessel. If that equipment caused an accident that led to the death of a worker, his or her dependents could make a claim through DOHSA.
The DOHSA also applies to commercial aircraft and aviation accidents. If a plane crash occurs beyond 12 nautical miles from the U.S. shore dependents of those killed can seek nonpecuniary damages. This means damages for things like the loss of comfort, companionship, and care.
Compensation under DOHSA
If a loved one of a deceased seaman can prove that the owner was negligent and that the vessel was unseaworthy, he or she can make a claim through the DOHSA for compensation. The law states that those claimants will be apportioned recovery according to the extent of the loss. Pecuniary damages are awarded to cover a number of costs related to the loss of the seaman. These may include:
- Lost current and future financial support for dependents
- Funeral costs
- Expenses for any counseling related to the death
- Lost wages owed to a spouse or other dependent, including pension and benefits
- The cost of household services provided by the deceased, like lawn care or maintenance
Limitations of DOHSA Compensation
The DOHSA does not cover all costs related to the deceased or to all family members of that worker. An ex-spouse is not entitled to recover any damages, nor are adult children not living at home. Dependent children may receive compensation until they are 18 or longer if they attend college or another higher education institution.
The DOHSA also does not provide for nonpecuniary damages, except for the dependents of the deceased who meets the aviation accident requirements. These types of damages, for mental anguish, pain and suffering, and grief, are not covered by DOHSA, but they are covered by other federal maritime laws, like the Jones Act.
There is also a statute of limitations for making a claim under this act. A claim must be made within three years of the fatal accident. The process of determining negligence and of calculating lost wages and other factors to decide on compensation are complicated and take time. For this reason, if you need to file a DOHSA claim, it is recommended that you do it as soon after the death as possible.
DOHSA and Contributory Negligence
In situations in which the deceased was negligent in the accident in some way, dependent family members are not denied compensation. The negligence on the part of the deceased that contributed to his or her death is considered, though. It can cause the amount of damages recovered by dependents to be reduced from what it would have been if the deceased was found not to be negligent.
If you have lost someone to the high seas, the loss may be devastating. It can be tough to navigate the legal process of filing for the damages you are owed while also coping with your grief. To find out what your rights are in your specific case, rely on the assistance of an attorney experienced with maritime law and the DOHSA.