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Legal Memorandum: Impact of Death on High Seas Act

Issue: What impact does the Death on High Seas Act (DOHSA) have on general maritime law claims for an accident on a cruise ship leading to death once on land?

Area of Law: Admiralty & Maritime Law
Keywords: Maritime law claims; Accident on a cruise ship; Death on High Seas Act
Jurisdiction: Federal, Washington
Cited Cases: 210 F.3d 565; 819 F.2d 256; 393 F. Supp. 246; 436 U.S. 618; 39 F.3d 1398; 117 F. 3d 1477; 54 F.3d 570; 742 F.2d 890; 95 F. Supp. 916; 111 Cal. App. 3d 958
Cited Statutes: 46 U.S.C. § 30302; 46 U.S.C. § 30306;
Date: 01/01/2009

The Death on the High Seas Act limits recovery to pecuniary damages.  DOHSA applies if a person’s death was “caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States.”  46 U.S.C. § 30302.    

The phrase ‘occurring on the high seas’ . . . is adjectival of ‘wrongful act, neglect, or default,’ rather than of ‘death.’  This interpretation is buttressed by decisions involving death statutes in which courts have held that an admiralty court has jurisdiction if the deceased has been injured on the high seas and has died on land.  ‘In these cases it has been uniformly held that the locus of the tort is the place where the injury was actually inflicted.’  The statute is taken to mean, therefore, that the wrongful act, neglect or default which caused the death must have occurred on the high seas if a right of action is to exist.

Lacey v. L.W. Wiggins Airways, Inc., 95 F. Supp. 916 (D. Mass. 1951) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).  Thus, when one later dies on land as a result of an injury that occurred on the high seas, DOHSA is the exclusive wrongful death remedy.  See Howard v. Crystal Cruises, Inc., 41 F.3d 527 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. denied 514 U.S. 1084; Touhey v. Carnivale Cruise Lines, 111 Cal. App. 3d 958 (1980); Motts v. M/V Green Wave, 210 F.3d […]

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