Maritime Law: A Look At Wrongful Death

How the Law Applies to Death on the High Seas

The loss of a loved one under any circumstance can be both emotionally and financially devastating to a household. Depending on what happened to cause the individual’s death, family members and loved ones are often left with many questions, particularly with regard to determining who can be held responsible from a legal standpoint. One thing that some people may or may not know is that deaths that occur a certain distance away from or within a U.S. shoreline can be subject to a variety of laws. And believe it or not, the simple question of the location of the vessel is arguably the most critical component because of the implications regarding the law that applies to the claims. That is why it is very important for spouses (or family members) of the deceased to work with knowledgeable lawyers who are familiar with the appropriate laws that should be applied in the event of an individual’s maritime-related death.

Deaths That Occur Less Than Three Miles From a U.S. Shoreline

Individuals should be aware that general wrongful death laws will apply if a passenger or a sea worker is killed while he or she is still within three nautical miles of a state shoreline (or within U.S. territory waters). Additionally, if a crewmember or seaman who is within three nautical miles of a U.S. shoreline dies because of a ship owner’s or employer’s negligence, the Jones Act might also be applicable and such a claim can be filed right along with a general wrongful death claim.

Deaths That Occur More Than Three Miles From a U.S. Shoreline

Many attorneys are often faced with cases that involve deaths that took place more than three miles away from a U.S. shoreline. What spouses and family members should know about such deaths is that they are generally covered by the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Generally, DOHSA will apply to all individuals who were killed in accidents that took place more than three miles out from a U.S. shoreline, no matter whether the individual was a maritime worker or not.

As a general rule, DOHSA is a nasty federal law that dramatically limits the recovery that can be made in a death claim. For example, the Act limits the amount of wrongful death damages that spouses, children, parents and dependent relatives will be able to recover, and individuals should note that only “pecuniary” damages will be recoverable under this particular law. Pecuniary damages are those damages that can be quantified in terms of a dollar amount. That said, family members will not be able to recover damages for things like loss of companionship or consortium.

Having said that, an experienced attorney knows that there are ways to make a substantial recovery in a death claim, if done correctly.

Loved ones should also be aware that a lawsuit under the Act must be brought within three years from the date of the seaman’s death. Additionally, in cases involving the wrongful death of a crewmember, the decedent’s personal representative could choose to bring an action under either general maritime wrongful death laws or under DOHSA.

What Happens in Cases Where a Worker is Not Considered a Seaman Under the Law?

In cases that involve individuals who are crane operators, shoreside vessel workers, shipyard welders and/or land-based cargo handlers, those workers are generally covered under the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act with respect to claims of wrongful death. Under that Act, the surviving family members of the covered workers will be entitled to statutory death benefits that are based on a portion of the decedent’s earnings.

The question regarding the work status of a person who dies at sea, that is, whether he is a seamen or not, is also of critical importance. And only an experienced maritime practitioner can appropriately answer this question.

If you have a loved one who passed away while at sea or while on the job working on the ocean, contact one of the maritime lawyers at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. as soon as possible.