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Marine & Energy News Alert: Determining the Scope of Application for the Death on the High Seas Act

November 11, 2016

On August 10, 2016, Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued an opinion recognizing that the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) provides the exclusive means of recovery for deaths or fatal injuries which occur on the high seas regardless of where negligent conduct takes place before or after the incident.

This particular case arose as a result of an incident on October 1, 2015, in which the cargo ship SS EL FARO sank off the coast of Jamaica. The sinking resulted in loss of life for all individuals on board, including the vessel’s captain, Michael Davidson. In response to the vessel sinking, the shipowners initiated a limitation proceeding, and several claimants began filing wrongful death and cargo claims against the shipowner. Many of these claimants also filed third-party complaints against Michael Davidson and/or his estate, asserting negligence claims based on general maritime law.

Davidson subsequently filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the claimants’ third-party complaints should be dismissed because DOHSA provides the exclusive means of recovery against him and all other claims brought against him on grounds other than wrongful death under DOHSA must be dismissed. Claimants opposed Davidson’s motion and argued that the negligent conduct alleged in their third-party complaints occurred in the Port of Jacksonville and in Florida international waters and therefore they are entitled to recovery under either general maritime law or under the Florida Wrongful Death Act. Further, the claimants argued that despite all the deaths occurring on the high seas, DOHSA should not apply because no negligent acts occurred on the high seas.

In deciding the motion, the Court first noted that the claimants failed to provide any case law that would support the claimants’ theory. Further, Judge Schlesinger determined that case law clearly demonstrates that DOHSA applies whenever deaths occur on the high seas, regardless of where any negligent conduct occurred. Thus, the location of the injury, not the location of the negligent conduct, is the determinative issue of whether DOHSA applies.

Based on this finding, Judge Schlesinger granted Davidson’s motion to dismiss and allowed the claimants 21 days from the date of the order within which they would need to amend their third-party complaints to properly assert a claim against Davidson pursuant to DOHSA.

This decision is significant because it provides clarity as to when DOHSA applies and helps to demonstrate the intent of DOHSA, which is to provide the exclusive means of recovery for deaths that occur on the high seas regardless of where negligent conduct takes place.

The case is In the Matter of The Complaint v. Sea Star Line, LLC. Click here to read the entire decision.