Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)

Life raft floating in the water, Jones Act

Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) – Legal Rights under the Maritime Law

46 USCS Appx § § 761 et seq.

§ 761. Right of action; where and by whom brought

Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of any State, or the District of Columbia, or the Territories or dependencies of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may maintain a suit for damages in the district courts of the United States, in admiralty, for the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s wife, husband, parent, child, or dependent relative against the vessel, person, or corporation which would have been liable if death had not ensued.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 1, 41 Stat. 537.)

§ 762. Amount and apportionment of recovery

The recovery in such suit shall be a fair and just compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained by the persons for whose benefit the suit is brought and shall be apportioned among them by the court in proportion to the loss they may severally have suffered by reason of the death of the person by whose representative the suit is brought.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 2, 41 Stat. 537.)

§ 763a. Statute of Limitations- Death on the High Seas Act

Unless otherwise specified by law, a suit for recovery of damages for personal injury or death, or both, arising out of a maritime tort, shall not be maintained unless commenced within three years from the date the cause of action accrued.

(Pub. L. 96-382, § 1, Oct. 6, 1980, 94 Stat. 1525.)

§ 764. Rights of action given by laws of foreign countries

Whenever a right of action is granted by the law of any foreign State on account of death by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring upon the high seas, such right may be maintained in an appropriate action in admiralty in the courts of the United States without abatement in respect to the amount for which recovery is authorized, any statute of the United States to the contrary notwithstanding.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 4, 41 Stat. 537.)

§ 765. Death of plaintiff pending action

If a person die 1 as the result of such wrongful act, neglect, or default as is mentioned in section 761 of this Appendix during the pendency in a court of admiralty of the United States of a suit to recover damages for personal injuries in respect of such act, neglect, or default, the personal representative of the decedent may be substituted as a party and the suit may proceed as a suit under this chapter for the recovery of the compensation provided in section 762 of this Appendix.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 5, 41 Stat. 537.)

§ 766. Contributory Negligence

In suits under this chapter the fact that the decedent has been guilty of contributory negligence shall not bar recovery, but the court shall take into consideration the degree of negligence attributable to the decedent and reduce the recovery accordingly.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 6, 41 Stat. 537.)

§ 767. Exceptions from operation of chapter

The provisions of any State statute giving or regulating rights of action or remedies for death shall not be affected by this chapter. Nor shall this chapter apply to the Great Lakes or to any waters within the territorial limits of any State, or to any navigable waters in the Panama Canal Zone.

(Mar. 30, 1920, ch. 111, § 7, 41 Stat. 538.)

Maritime Law – Death On The High Seas Act

When a seaman dies as a result of an employer’s negligence or because of an unseaworthy vessel, the worker’s family may file for benefits under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). The incident must occur on the high seas beyond a marine league (three miles) from the shore of any state, the District of Columbia, or U.S. territory or dependency. The decedent’s wife, husband, parent, child or dependent relative may file a claim under the stipulations of the DOHSA. Although parents and children could recover for wrongful death of seaman working on surveying vessel under either 46 USCS Appx § 688 or Death on High Seas Act (46 USCS Appx § § 761 et seq.), these provisions do not preclude remedy under general maritime law. Spiller v Thomas M. Lowe, Jr. & Associates, Inc. (1972, CA8 Ark) 466 F2d 903, 20 ALR Fed 89

A plaintiff usually receives damages for pecuniary loss caused by the loss of the deceased seamen’s services. A DOHSA suit must commence within three years from the date of the seaman’s death. If the decedent’s negligent conduct contributed to the accident (contributory negligence), an award may be reduced accordingly. In action for wrongful death of crew member, personal representative could bring general maritime action for wrongful death or action under 46 USCS Appx § 688 or Death on High Seas Act (46 USCS Appx § § 761-768) and was not required to make election among theories of recovery. Puamier v Barge BT 1793 (1974, ED Va) 395 F Supp 1019, 17 UCCRS 745.

Death On The High Seas Act (DOHSA) May Apply To Airline Crashes & Other Aircraft Disasters At Sea

DOHSA Death on the High Seas Act Death on the High Seas Act, known as DOHSA, a 1920 statute that has been applied to sharply limit damages suffered by victims of airline disasters to economic losses only. DOHSA applies to accidents “on the high seas.” Under current law, DOHSA applies to the Egyptair Flight 990 disaster, which occurred on international waters, and has been raised as a defense by the defendants in the TWA Flight 800 and Swissair Flight 111 cases, despite the fact that those disasters occurred on territorial waters and not on the high seas. The Alaska Airlines Flight 261 disaster brought light to the use of DOHSA and demonstrated that application of the law to aircraft which routinely pass over international waters on domestic and international flights.

TWA flight 800 crashed just beyond a marine league of New York on take off, killing all aboard. Among the decedents were many children whose parents could assert little actual pecuniary loss resulting from their unfortunate deaths. In response to the public outcry and media attention focused on airline safety, Congress soon undertook the task of amending DOHSA to allow recovery for loss of consortium, care and companionship in all cases of “commercial aviation accidents.” This measure passed the U.S. Congress and became law in April, 2000.On April 5, 2000, a new amendment to DOHSA became law. The amendment applies retroactively to commercial aviation accidents which occur after July 16, 1996 (the day before the TWA 800 disaster).

The DOHSA amendment confirms the ruling of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the TWA 800 case that DOHSA does not govern accidents that occur within 12 miles of the United States shoreline. As a result, state law remedies, including punitive damages and conscious pain and suffering, may be recoverable against the airlines and others and not restricted by the Death on the High Seas Act. The amendment further provides that for airline, helicopter and other aviation accidents beyond 12 miles, DOSHA applies but additional non-pecuniary damages are recoverable, which are defined as “care, comfort and companionship.” The amendment does not address whether DOHSA applies on foreign territorial waters, a matter currently under review in the Swissair Flight 111 disaster case. The amendment is significant because it ends the arbitrary DOHSA economic damage limitation in commercial aviation accidents which happen to occur on the high seas. The families of passengers killed in aviation disasters will be able to recover damages for non-economic losses and will not face the prospect of a sharply reduced recovery that the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act.

Those crashes outside 12 nautical miles from the shores of the United States will still fall under the Death on the High Seas Act. Under the amendment however, compensation for non-pecuniary damages will be allowed in addition to pecuniary damages for commercial crashes. Non-pecuniary damages will be permitted only for the loss of care, comfort and companionship in death actions arising from commercial aviation accidents. Commercial aviation involves transport “for compensation or hire.” Thus where persons are killed in “commercial” accidents on the high seas (typically the airline, commuter and charter passengers) the culpable defendants may be forced to pay non-pecuniary damages on top of pecuniary damages.

DOHSA – Offshore Helicopter Crash Lawyer

Helicopter flights over water that do not involve compensation or hire, will not be covered by the amended DOHSA. Similarly, public-use aircraft accidents and military aircraft accidents are still subject to the harsh limitations of the 80-year-old Death on the High Seas Act, whereby only pecuniary damages can be recovered. General aviation accidents on the high seas involving corporate aircraft and privately owned aircraft are excluded.

One must carefully look at all facts involved in any offshore helicopter crash and see what the status of the injured or deceased was at the time of the helicopter accident. The critical issue is the status of the individual injured or killed, not the fact that it more than 3 or even 100 miles offshore. If passenger killed, was a Jones Act seaman working on an offshore platform, boat or jackup oil rig, then a Jones Act lawsuit may be filed against the seaman’s employer, the transportation company and others. The Jones Act employer may be found partially negligent in forcing the workers to be transported in bad weather conditions or even negligent in selecting a helicopter transport company with under-powered aircraft or poor accident history. The differences in damages between a helicopter crash death under DOHSA verses under the Jones Act may be substantial. In cases like this always talk to a skilled Maritime Injury Attorney and protect the rights of your family. Call 1-800-468-4878 and speak to a Jones Act Lawyer today.

Willis Law Firm, Offshore & Maritime Lawyer
Nationwide Help - Licensed in Texas and New York
Principal Office
5005 Riverway Drive
Suite #160

Houston, Texas 77056

By Appointment Only
Willis Law Firm Portway Plaza
1717 Turning Basin Dr.
Suite #232

Houston, Texas 77029

Back to Top


Protect Your Rights.

"Willis battled the chemical companies
and won our case." - MELISSA C.