Death on the High Seas Act – Generally

A cause of action under the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 USCS §§ 30301 et seq will lie if the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States.  The decedent’s spouse, parent, child, or the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action against the person or vessel responsible for such death.

The Death on the High Seas Act provided an admiralty remedy for wrongful death under foreign law also.  Thus, whenever an action for wrongful death on the high seas is granted by the law of a foreign state, the action may be maintained in an American admiralty court, applying foreign substantive law, without abatement, with respect to the amount for which recovery is authorized.[i]

The claimant shall be entitled to a fair compensation in proportion of the loss sustained by the individuals.  The injured party can recover damages even if the negligence of the decedent has contributed to the mishap.  The court takes into account the degree of such contributory negligence while computing the damages and reduces the recovery.  If the plaintiff dies during the pendency of the action, the personal representative of the decedent may be substituted as the plaintiff.

The Death on the High Seas Act does not affect the law of a State regulating the right to recover for death.  The message of the Act is that it does not by its own force abrogate available state remedies.[ii]

If the death of the person was the result of a commercial aviation accident occurring on the high seas beyond 12 nautical miles from the shore of the United States, additional compensation is recoverable for nonpecuniary damages like loss of care, comfort, and companionship.  However, the plaintiff is not entitled to recover punitive damages.

The Death on the High Seas Act does not permit recovery for a decedent’s pre-death pain and suffering.[iii]

[i] Dooley v. Korean Air Lines Co. (In re Korean Air Lines Disaster), 117 F.3d 1477 (D.C. Cir. 1997)

[ii] Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375, 400 (U.S. 1970)

[iii] Dooley, 117 F.3d 1477


Inside Death on the High Seas Act – Generally