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What is the ‘Death On The High Seas Act?’

The Death on the High Seas Act is a federal law that was passed in 1920 seeking to regulate the process of legal redress for wrongful death actions that have their origin in the international waters between countries. It has been substantially and controversially expanded by President Reagan’s decision in 1988 to extend the aquatic borders of the United States.

There are two ways through which a death at sea may be legally actionable under DOHSA. There are survival actions, under which a representative of the estate of the deceased sues the person, people or organization that they feel is legally liable for damages that the deceased person would have tried to sue them for if they had survived. This may include pain and suffering. There are also wrongful death actions, where the family of someone who died on the high seas sues for the damages that have been done to their family’s economic future and the loss of consortium.

The exact jurisdiction of DOHSA has been the subject of dissent among the legal community. In 1988, Reagan expanded the territorial waters of the United States to 12 miles from the shore. This has caused different interpretations of the law in the case of deaths that occur between the 3-mile limit imposed by DOHSA and the 12-mile limit.

Maritime law is a distinct branch of the legal code with long traditions and ancient origins. If someone has died as a result of an accident on the high seas, then it may be a good idea for the family or the representative of the estate to consult with a lawyer who has practiced in the maritime field. They may be able to help them to understand the precise ramifications of maritime law and to find the best method to seek compensation for the loss of their loved one.

Source: Fordham Law Review, “A Territorial Sea Change: The Death on the High Seas Act and the Extension of the Territorial Sea“, December 19, 2014

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