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Maritime Death Claims

There are several different types of maritime death claims available to the estate or families of individuals killed by accidents at sea. The applicable law depends on a variety of factors, particularly whether the decedent was a crewmember aboard a vessel at the time of their death, and the precise location of the incident that caused the person’s death.

There are two distinct types of claims that arise from a person’s death: wrongful death claims and survival actions.

A wrongful death cause of action belongs to the decedent's dependents, or closest kin in the case of the death of a minor. It allows the beneficiaries to recover for the harm that they personally suffered as a result of the death, and it is totally independent of any cause of action the decedent may have had for his or her own personal injuries. Damages are determined by what the beneficiaries would have received from the decedent and can include recovery for pecuniary losses like lost monetary support, and for non-pecuniary losses like loss of society.

A survival action, in contrast, belongs to the estate of the deceased, although it is usually brought by the deceased's relatives acting in a representative capacity and allows recovery for the injury to the deceased from the action causing death. Under a survival action, the decedent's representative recovers for the decedent's pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost earnings, both past and future, and funeral expenses.

If a loved one dies due to an accident or injury occurring at sea, the estate and/or family of the decedent may have one or more of the following claims:

  • General Maritime Law Wrongful Death or Survival Action
  • Jones Act Wrongful Death or Survival Action
  • State Law Wrongful Death or Survival Action
  • Claims under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)
  • Claims under the laws of a foreign country

Historically, general maritime law did not provide a remedy for the death of any person. By the early twentieth century, most states had enacted “wrongful death” or “survival” statutes which allow the family of a person killed to recover damages for the death. In 1907, the U.S. Supreme Court held that claims could be brought under state law for deaths occurring within the territorial waters of the state.

There was no remedy for deaths occurring outside of territorial waters until 1920 when Congress passed the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). The Jones Act death remedy applies only to the deaths of seamen. DOHSA applies to all other deaths occurring more than three miles from the shore of the United States.

In 1970, U.S. Supreme Court held that maritime law has changed with the times and now recognizes a remedy for wrongful death and survival actions. Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375 (1970). General maritime law death remedies are only available in claims not covered by the Jones Act or DOHSA.

If the decedent was killed (or suffered injuries that ultimately led to death) in the course of their duties as a crewmember, claims are available against the decedent’s employer under the Jones Act and doctrine of unseaworthiness. Crewmember deaths may also give rise to claims against negligent third parties (other than the seaman’s employer) which are covered by general maritime law, state law, or DOHSA.

Claims for the deaths of individuals who are not crewmembers are covered by general maritime law, state law, or DOHSA.

Although there is quite a bit of overlap between the various causes of action, small differences in the facts of a case may profoundly impact the damages available. DOHSA provides extremely limited damages, and in many situations may not even allow for recovery of the decedent’s medical expenses (i.e. when a lawsuit is not filed until after the decedent’s death). In contrast, much broader damages are available under general maritime law and the laws of certain states.

It is important to consult with an experienced maritime lawyer any time a death case may implicate nuanced areas of maritime law. If a loved one is gravely injured or has died due to an accident that occurred at sea, the wrongful death and survival claims are unique from claims arising due to shoreside negligence. For example, if a claim is covered by DOHSA, a lawsuit must be filed prior to the person’s death in order to preserve claims for medical expenses. If you have questions regarding a potential maritime death claim, our knowledgeable maritime attorneys are available to provide a free consultation at (206) 202-7974.