When people think about maritime law, they often do not think of our modern legal system, but often immediately jump to fanciful ideas like piracy or parlays, or other outdated notions given to us by movies and television. In fact, there are still important laws on the books that govern how legal cases are handled when something happens at sea, including the Jones Act (Maritime Injury) and the Death on the High Seas Act, which helps determine liability and compensation for families who have lost a loved one in an offshore accident.
Recent, high-profile accidents like the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico have reminded the public that accidents happen off the U.S. coast, far away from the standard jurisdictions that govern our daily lives. So, it only makes sense that there must be specific laws that apply when something takes place far, far away from shore. The Death On The High Seas act was first passed in 1920 and allows for the families of a person who was killed due to negligent or reckless actions or unseaworthiness of a vessel to pursue compensation under maritime law. The act was updated in the year 2000 to include the loss of life in aircraft crashes or mishaps. Maritime law applies to accidents that occur more than three nautical miles from U.S. shores for passengers on a vessel, and more than 12 nautical miles for workers or passengers on commercial airliners.
The most common types of accidents that are covered under the Death On the High Seas Act include explosions, sunken or overturned boats, onboard fires, mechanical errors or defects, failure to properly follow safety guidelines, failure to provide necessary medical care, or failure to properly train personnel. If a person loses his or her life due to any of the reasons above (or other reasons not listed here) their immediate family may be able to file a lawsuit against the party responsible. Immediate family members are defined as spouses, parents, children, or other dependent family members, typically.
The type of compensation a person can recover under the Death on the High Seas Act will vary depending on the specific circumstances of the accident, but usually, maritime attorneys who have experience with these type of cases (and there are several in Houston who helped handle Deepwater Horizon claims like this firm here), will help the family pursue compensation including: funeral costs, loss of companionship and future earnings, expenses related to counseling and therapy, and other financial expenses related to the death.
In the end, no one wants to lose a family member in an accident, and it is especially hard when the person is away for long periods of time while in the shipping, drilling, or fishing industries, and they lose their life far away from their loved ones. Fortunately, due to laws like the Death on the High Seas act, families have legal recourse to take if they lose a loved one due to a tragic accident on a vessel, rig, or aircraft.