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Governing Law in Wrongful Death Actions

Substantive law of the state governs an action in admiralty under a wrongful-death statute.  Substantive law applies both to the affirmative requirements and available defenses under the state statute.  However, if there is a remedy under federal law for a wrongful death action, the state statute is not applied.  Instead, maritime law will govern such a cause of action occurred in state territorial waters.  For instance, the Jones Act establishes an action based on negligence for the wrongful death of a seaman regardless of the situs of the wrong.  However, “otherwise, the wrongful-death actions for deaths occurring on navigable waters within the three-mile territorial waters of a state depended upon whether the state had enacted a wrongful-death statute and, if so, whether the statute permitted recovery.” [i]

In some situations like where the death had occurred in a geographical area excluded by the act, the provisions of Death on the High Seas Act may be inapplicable.  In such cases, a plaintiff can proceed in admiralty either under a state wrongful-death statute, or can avail the general maritime remedy.  Where the state laws differ in the matter of remedy in wrongful death cases, the law of the state where the vessel is owned may be applied.  If the action is brought against the state, Suits in Admiralty Act and the Public Vessels Act applies as against the Federal Tort Claims Act.  A cause of action for wrongful death against the United States arises on the date of death.[ii]

A federal court’s jurisdiction will supersede state statutory remedies.  Thus, once a federal court determines that it has maritime jurisdiction over a wrongful death action, the broader forms of relief under the federal common law remedy become available to the parties.[iii]

Although admiralty law itself confers no right of action for wrongful death, where death results from a maritime tort committed within a state where there is a statutory remedy for wrongful death, the admiralty courts will entertain a libel in personam for the damages.  In such a case, the admiralty court enforces the state statute like a statute originating in any foreign jurisdiction. [iv]

[i] Sea-Land Servs. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573, 576 (U.S. 1974)

[ii] Malgren v. United States, 390 F. Supp. 154, 157 (W.D. Mich. 1975)

[iii] Hammill v. Olympic Airways, S.A., 398 F. Supp. 829, 835 (D.D.C. 1975)

[iv] Levinson v. Deupree, 345 U.S. 648 (U.S. 1953), Hess v. United States, 361 U.S. 314, 318-319 (U.S. 1960)

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