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Understanding Your Options When a Loved One Dies on the Open Sea

DOHSA: The Death on the High Seas ActAnyone who has a loved one who works offshore can tell you that this work can be extremely dangerous. Furthermore, state workers’ compensation laws do not cover maritime workers. Because maritime workers perform jobs outside the borders of any state, they depend on the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act to protect them against offshore work injuries. In many cases, these federal laws provide more coverage and benefits than a land-based workers’ compensation claim—at least when dealing with injuries.

But what about accidental deaths? Do these law provide coverage for maritime deaths?

Not really. These two maritime laws do include death benefits for workers under specific conditions, but they do not provide broad-based coverage. So, what protection do maritime workers and their families have in the event of an accident that causes fatal injuries?

Don’t worry. United States’ laws don’t leave maritime workers and their families high and dry after an overseas death. When a fatality occurs more than three miles from any one state’s shore, the Death on High Seas Act (DOHSA) will most likely apply.

Understanding DOHSA

Congress passed the Death on the High Seas Act in the 1920s to allow widows of maritime and offshore workers to obtain benefits when their husbands were killed while working at sea. Since then, the act has been updated and amended, but the principles remain the same.

In its current form, DOHSA allows the opportunity for surviving dependents and family members of the deceased to recover financial benefits. This law is of particular importance for many families because of the relatively restricted coverage of the Jones Act. While the Jones Act exclusively covers seamen, DOHSA can apply to seaman, workers, and even passengers of vessels that meet its criteria.

The five most important facets of this act that you must know are:

  • Who qualifies for benefits. A spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative can file a claim to receive DOHSA benefits.
  • What qualifies for benefits. Benefits are available when the death was due to negligence or an unseaworthy vessel.
  • Where the accident must take place to qualify for benefits. The death has to have taken place on the high seas beyond three miles from the shore of any U.S. state, the District of Columbia, U.S. territory, or dependency.
  • When an accident can qualify for benefits. There is a deadline, known as a statute of limitations, as to when a DOHSA claim can be filed. The window for filing a claim opens on the date of the accident and closes three years later. Although this timeframe may seem long, it can go by quickly. You must also consider the fact that when you file early, there will be more time to prepare and strengthen a case.
  • How qualifying for benefits can help the claimant. Under DOHSA, a legal action can recover any monetary loss incurred from the seaman’s death—funeral costs, lost wages, and loss of companionship and care. For example, a spouse can be eligible to recover compensation for the amount of capital that her husband’s death will cause her household to lose. In other words, spouses can file for a settlement of the financial contribution their husband or wife would have made for the family had they lived through the accident. However, if the deceased seaman’s actions contributed to the fatal accident, the compensation may be reduced.

Although these regulations exist to provide support for the families of the deceased, they can also make certain elements of filing for compensation more complex.

The Tricky Drawback of DOHSA

Under DOHSA, many of the same principles apply to wrongful death compensation cases as they do in car or truck accidents. However, there’s a primary difference: the handling of survival actions. A “survival action” is a term used in accidental deaths cases that refers to any pain and suffering endured by the victim between the time of the accident and their ultimate passing.

DOHSA does not contain a provision allowing for recovery for these damages. Instead, compensation for these damages must be brought under common law with regards to deaths in the workplace. Common law filing can be tough, but done quickly with the right resources and knowledge.

The help and guidance of an experienced maritime lawyer can go a long way in helping you file your claim. He can ensure that you understand your rights, properly interpret maritime laws, and that you’re filing for all the benefits in which you and your family are entitled. Contact our office today to see how attorney Steve Lee is the lawyer you need to take the first steps toward securing your financial future during a time of great distress. We want to help you feel whole again and help protect your family from further harm. Call now to let us help you!


Steven M. Lee
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