Death on the High Seas Act Time To Revise It?

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The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) was passed by Congress in 1920 as an attempt to govern compensation provided to the families of those killed at sea. The act has proven controversial because historically the recoverable losses were limited to the lost wages from the deceased, not to include any damages for pain and suffering.

The law has been seen as unfair because of the often limited ability of the affected to recover damages. Part of the language of the act is as follows:

“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.”

The act is limited. For example, under normal circumstances, if a person is injured at sea, and then later dies from those injuries, the act does not usually apply, unless there was already litigation pending.

There have been numerous attempts to change the DOHSA – most notably after the recent BP oil spill disaster, which killed several oil rig workers. However, as of now, there have been no major revisions to the law.