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Wrongful Death Actions

Maritime law provides a right to recover for wrongful death in the absence of any other remedy provided by federal statute.  Thus, if a state law provides remedy for wrongful death, an action for damages will lie under admiralty law where death results from a maritime tort committed on navigable waters within that state.  Such remedy is available to non seamen also.  Federal maritime law does not displace a state wrongful-death remedy and relief under state wrongful death statutes permitting non-pecuniary damages arising out of accidents in territorial waters are available to claimants who are not seamen or longshore workers.[i]

Nevertheless, general maritime law may limit damages recoverable by applying maritime common law to the exclusion of state wrongful-death acts where a workman is injured while engaged in a traditional maritime pursuit.  This is to maintain uniformity of law.  There is a general maritime cause of action for the wrongful death of a seaman under the Death on the High Seas Act.  The Act limits recoverable damages in wrongful death suits to pecuniary loss sustained by the persons and this “explicit limitation forecloses recovery for nonpecuniary loss, such as loss of society, in a general maritime action.”[ii]
What constitutes a maritime tort committed on navigable waters varies with the facts of each action.  Courts apply a two-part inquiry to determine the existence of maritime jurisdiction, which is “essentially fact-bound, turning on a determination of the location of the tort, the situs factor, and the pertinent activity, the nexus factor.”[iii]

Courts have held that wrong must bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity to establish the nexus.  Courts consider four factors in assessing the nexus requirement which are: “(1) the functions and roles of the parties, (2) the types of vehicles and instrumentalities involved; (3) the causation and type of injury; and (4) traditional concepts of the role of admiralty law.” [iv]

[i] American Dredging Co. v. Lambert, 81 F.3d 127, 130 (11th Cir. Fla. 1996)

[ii] Miles v Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 31 (U.S. 1990)

[iii] Richendollar v. Diamond M. Drilling Co., 819 F.2d 124, 127 (5th Cir.1987)

[iv] Kelly v. Smith, 485 F.2d 520,525 (5th Cir. Miss. 1973)

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