In 1920 Congress enacted the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) in an effort to provide a remedy for families who lost loved ones, particularly seamen, while engaged in maritime activity. Initially, the law covered various deaths occurring on the high seas on vessels and in operations involving loading and unloading vessels. As the commercial airline industry grew and aviation accidents increased resulting in plane crashes in the high seas, courts were left to devise creative interpretations of the law in order to find ways to allow victims of plane crashes to recover some compensation. It was not until the year 2000 that congress amended Death on the High Seas Act to deal specifically with commercial airplane crashes.
After the Oil Rig explosion in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress once again is attempting to amend DOHSA to allow victims to recover full damages for the loss of their family members.
The House of Representatives recently passed an Amendment to DOHSA. The Senate has not acted on this amendment to date. On July 1st 2010, the US House of Representative passed the SPILL Act which is an amendment to DOHSA. The Spill act will allow the family members of those killed in wrongful death cases on high seas to recover for non-pecuniary damages. This act would also repeal the Limitations on Liability Act (of 1851) which limits the liability of a vessel owner when an accident occurs. Now, bankruptcy will no longer be an excuse for a company to avoid compensating the victims and their families. The amendment changes the law to allow the victims’ families to collect full and fair compensation for their losses including what is called pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. Pecuniary damages are generally referred to as economic damages such as lost wages, income or other “out of pocket” losses. Non-pecuniary damages include pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life.
In its present form, DOHSA only allows for pecuniary damages unless a foreign law is applicable. Unfortunately, several courts have interpreted this section in a very restrictive manner. Under the current law, for example, if an adult child dies leaving no dependents the parents would not be able to recover anything for their loss of consortium or for the pain and suffering of their child.
On July 20th, 2010, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will be considering the new act to amend DOHSA. Especially with the recent oil rig explosion, this current amendment is a wonderful opportunity for congress to correct what has been a very unfair and restrictive law and make it more reasonable and humane in its treatment of all injured victims.