Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)

What is the Death on the High Seas Act

The Death on the High Seas Act was enacted by Congress in 1920, and provided recovery for the death of any person “caused by wrongful act, neglect or default occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of any state.” A marine league consists of three miles from the shore of any state. Deaths occurring further from shore than three miles are covered under the Death on the High Seas Act.

DOHSA does not apply to offshore drilling rigs. These are governed by the Outer Continental Shelf Act and supplemented by the law of the adjacent state.

A claim under DOHSA can be founded on unseaworthiness and is brought against the vessel or the vessel owner. In contrast, the Jones Act covers any seaman who suffers personal injury or dies as a result of injuries sustained in the course of employment. The cause of action is against the seaman’s employer.

The doctrine of unseaworthiness is a feature of the general maritime law. A vessel owner owes seamen a strict and absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. A seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its intended use.

The unseaworthiness defendant is the vessel owner or the operator if the operator has “full possession and control” over the vessel. Unlike the Jones Act claim which is against the seaman’s employer, an unseaworthiness claim is made against the vessel’s owner. In many cases, those two will be the same.

An unseaworthiness claim against the vessel owner may be combined with a Jones Act claim against the seaman’s employer. Both claims must be filed within 3 years of the injury. If an unseaworthiness claim is joined with a Jones Act claim, the plaintiff may ask for a jury trial on the unseaworthiness claim as well as the Jones Act claim.

The duty to provide a vessel that is reasonably safe extends to all parts of the vessel and to almost all facets of its operation. The fact that the unseaworthy condition occurred after the vessel left port is immaterial. It is no excuse that the vessel owner had no notice of or opportunity to correct the condition that caused the injury; liability still will exist. The warranty of seaworthiness is absolute, continuing, and non-delegable. It extends to all parts of the vessel, including the hull, appliances, appurtenances, gear and equipment, even the vessel’s manpower. Unfit crew members constitute an unseaworthy condition. In addition, temporary conditions such as oil, water, or ice on the deck, known as transitory unseaworthiness, provides a basis for a recovery.

An unseaworthy condition can be created by employees of the owner or even independent contractors. The warranty of seaworthiness imposed by the operation of law on a vessel owner or operator is a powerful tool to protect the rights of seamen. Experienced maritime counsel should be retained in these cases.

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