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DOHSA: Death on the High Seas Act

Death on the High Seas Act

The family members of passengers who die while on a cruise ship may have a viable legal claim against the cruise line when the death occurs because of the negligence or carelessness of the cruise line or its medical team. However, the law that covers these incidents is complex and governed primarily by an 1886 statute called the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA).

Ironically, the law was written to provide fair compensation to the family of crew members who died accidentally while working on commercial vessels while the ships were on the high seas. High seas are defined as three nautical miles from the shore of the United States. DOHSA is a federal law and therefore preempts state laws that would normally provide benefits under the wrongful death act. In other words, it is the only means of suing the cruise line.¹


Loss of Support

The Death on the High Seas Act specifically allows for the recovery of money lost because of the financial support and contributions the deceased passenger would have made for his or her dependent family if he or she had lived. (Cir. 1987.).

A claim for loss of support is not the same as a claim for the decedent’s future earnings, since the earnings must be reduced by taxes and as well as the amounts that the deceased would have consumed himself. The earnings are then reduced to present value at the after-tax earnings rates on the most conservative available investments.  This kind of analysis requires an evaluation by an expert economist.

Additionally, the surviving spouse is also entitled to claim loss of support from earnings over the work-life expectancy of the deceased, and from projected retirement pensions or Social Security benefits–unless those benefits are already being paid.  Surviving children can also claim loss of support of services, until the child reaches age 22. When it appears likely that the child would attend college, some courts have awarded the surviving child the cost of attending college.

Loss of Inheritance

When the surviving spouse and/or surviving children have life expectancies that exceed the life expectancy of the deceased passenger, and have a reasonable expectation of an inheritance, there are cases where loss of this inheritance has been awarded from decedent’s estate.

Loss of Services of the Deceased

Recovery of damages for loss of household services requires proof that such services were expected and likely to be provided, were it not for the wrongful death.  The loss of household services performed by the decedent—such as mowing the lawn, painting and repairing the family home and family vehicles, and providing transportation to family members—is compensable, too.

To prove this, family members will have to provide testimony about the amount of time the decedent spent providing these services as well as what it costs to pay someone else to perform them.

Loss of Nurture, Guidance, and Instruction

The loss to a decedent’s children can also include the nurture, instruction, guidance, and the physical, intellectual, and moral training they would have received from their parent, but for the accidental death of that parent.  This kind of loss sustained by the minor child is recognized as well under DOHSA. The value of care, nurture, and guidance may be difficult to compute exactly, but courts have found that there is a monetary value for these kinds of services.

One method our firm uses to compute that value is the expert opinion of vocational counselors who can opine on the rates of pay in a given community for teachers, guidance counselors, and psychologists.

Funeral Expenses

Funeral expenses are also reimbursable if paid by the decedent’s dependents.

 ¹ The one exception to this is that under the Jones Act, a seaman’s claim for personal injuries survives to his estate by virtue of F.E.L.A.§59, permitting the estate of the deceased seaman to recover damages for the decedent’s conscious pre-death pain and suffering (along with any loss of earnings or medical expenses between injury and death) where those losses are proven by the evidence.

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