Jurisdiction under the Death on the High Seas Act

Under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), if the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible.  However, death may occur on land.  The Act does not affect the law of a State regulating the right to recover for death.  Further, this Act does not apply to the Great Lakes or waters within the territorial limits of a State.

In construing the Death on the High Seas Act, which expressly refers to the District Court of the United States “in admiralty” and to actions “in admiralty” in the courts of the United States, the prevailing view seems to be that the act confers jurisdiction exclusively on admiralty courts.  However, the position that jurisdiction of actions under the Death on the High Seas Act is not confined to admiralty courts has been taken, both in cases decided by federal courts and in cases decided by state courts.  When a DOHSA claim may be brought in a court other than an admiralty court and is joined with Jones Act claim, the Death on High Seas Act action may be tried by jury.  Also, it has been held that the section of the Death on the High Seas Act pursuant to which suit may be maintained in admiralty courts on a right of action for death created by a foreign state does not preclude a suit at law on the foreign right of action.

In interpreting the types of actions addressed by the Act, it has been held that a District Court does not have admiralty jurisdiction necessary under the Death on the High Seas Act to entertain a contract-based breach of warranty claim in a product-liability case, where the defect resulted in a death.


Inside Jurisdiction under the Death on the High Seas Act