Considering the Death On the High Seas Act in Washington After Recent Cruise Ship Lifeboat Accident

Five crewmen were killed following a lifeboat drill on a British-operated vessel off the Coast of Spain. The drill had ended and the life boat proceeded to hoist back onto the ship. A cable snapped, causing the boat to fall 65 feet into the port upside down. Despite immediate action, the men perished as a result of the failed cable system.

When death occurs on a ship, whether off the coast of Washington or a European nation, many demographic facts are considered when compensation is sought for the loss of life. All five men were foreign nationals from developing countries - Ghana, Philippines, and Indonesia. The vessel was owned by a British company and the accident occurred while docked in Spain. Many decisions regarding where to file a legal claim will have to be made.

In the United States, the family seeking to file a law suit because of a maritime-related death will also have additional considerations based on the location of the fatal injury. If the injury occurred more than three nautical miles off the shore, then the federal Death On the High Seas Act (DOHSA) will pre-empt any state causes of action that a family member may try to pursue. This type of action can only be brought by a wife, husband, child, or dependent relative; and the recovery is limited to pecuniary damages, which have been found to be loss of support, services, and inheritance. These must be proven by supported facts with a reasonable amount of certainty to avoid speculation.

The initial purpose of the Act was to create remedy where there may be none. Courts had the difficult decision to either find that no remedy exists, or allow a traditional state wrongful death action. DOHSA was the legislature's attempt to restore uniformity to maritime law. Within the law itself, however, there are greater allowances for commercial aviation accidents. Those filing suit for fatal crashes that occur greater than 12 nautical miles from the shore of the United States can pursue non-pecuniary damages which includes loss of care, comfort, and companionship. DOHSA also allows foreign plaintiffs to sue in a foreign country for wrongful act, negligence, or default on the high seas. This allowance is to prevent companies from limiting their liability under the Act.

DOHSA can be filed in either federal or state court. If DOHSA does not apply, then the traditional remedies of wrongful death or survival actions can be pursued. In contrast with DOHSA, wrongful death damages in Washington are not limited to pecuniary, but can include punitive damages if malicious intent is proven.

It is the location of the fatal injury that determines whether DOHSA is applied or not. It does not matter if the negligence occurred on land, or if the decedent died ashore. A critical examination of the facts surrounding the death is necessary to understand which statute applies. Both John Merriam and Gordon Webb have navigated the complexities and subtleties of maritime law in Washington and throughout the U.S. They are available for a free consultation to help you through your difficult loss and receive the compensation your are owed.

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