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Important Questions about Legal Claims under the Death on the High Sea Act (DOHSA)

When you lose a loved one or family member who is a passenger, seaman, or guest on a cruise ship because of the negligent conduct of the cruise line, the law that governs your right to recovery is complex.  A wrongful death claim may be brought by the beneficiaries of those who die under such circumstances if the death occurs at least three nautical miles from land.  Surviving family members considering such a legal claim must understand their basic rights as defined by the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA).

 What time limits apply for filing a wrongful death claim under DOHSA?

The statute of limitations for a DOHSA wrongful death claim is three years from the date of death.  However, passenger tickets constitute a contract between the passenger and cruise line.  The ticket contract often significantly shortens the time frame within which a wrongful death claim must be commenced by ticketed passengers.

What family members have a right to bring a claim for wrongful death?

There are a number of family members who can obtain recovery as a beneficiary under DOHSA, including:

  • Decedent’s Spouse: If you were lawfully married to the decedent when he or she died, you qualify as a beneficiary under DOHSA.  While a divorce judgment will prevent the ex-spouse from being considered a beneficiary, the spouse still has a right to recover if the divorce has not been finalized.  If a man and a woman have a common law marriage that is recognized under the state law where the couple reside, the spouse in this situation also will be considered a beneficiary.
  • Children of the Decedent: Biological and legally adopted children who have experienced pecuniary loss because of the death of a parent have been ruled to be beneficiaries.  Stepchildren who have suffered pecuniary loss due to the decedent’s death also are considered beneficiaries.
  • Decedent’s Siblings: Financially dependent siblings also may qualify as beneficiaries.
  • Parents of Decedent: Parents of the decedent are considered beneficiaries but only if they are financially dependent on the decedent.

What damages can be pursued in a wrongful death claim under DOHSA?

DOHSA imposes a distinct framework for damages built around the estimated financial value beneficiaries would have received from the decedent had he or she not died.  Within this framework for damages, the following forms of compensation might be available:

Lost Monetary Support and Financial Contributions: This form of damages provides compensation for the lost fiscal contributions the decedent would have made to a spouse and children over the period of his or her life expectancy less the cost of care and maintenance of the decedent.

Loss of Parental Guidance: This form of damages compensates dependent children for the loss of guidance, care, and training of a deceased parent.

Inheritance Reimbursement: This form of compensation compensates beneficiaries for the loss of financial support to dependents over the life expectancy of the decedent.

Loss of Services: This type of damages compensates beneficiaries for the value of loss of household services that would have been provided by the decedent.

Pain and Suffering of Decedent Prior to Death: While a monetary recovery can be sought for the pain and suffering of the decedent, this form or recovery is only available if death was not instantaneous.  The decedent can be compensated for pain and suffering incurred from the time of injury until death.  A further restriction on this form or recovery mandates that the decedent pass away while pursuing a personal injury claim in federal admiralty court for the unreasonably unsafe acts or omissions that eventually resulted in the death of the decedent.

Burial/Funeral Costs: The actual cost of burial and funeral costs paid by beneficiaries qualifies for reimbursement.

Unfortunately, DOHSA limits monetary recovery to “pecuniary damages,” so certain types of damages are not recoverable.  When a spouse, child, parent or sibling dies, the surviving family members will experience mental anguish and grief, but compensation for this type of harm is not available in a wrongful death claim under DOHSA.  Additionally, the loss of companionship, love, and affection of a spouse (referred to as “loss of consortium”) also does not constitute a form or recoverable damages.

Greenberg Stone and Urbano:  Seeking Maximum Recovery for the Loss of a Loved One on the High Seas

If you have lost a close family member in an accident or criminal attack on a cruise ship, our Florida Cruise Injury Lawyers at Greenberg Stone and Urbano will tenaciously pursue the full compensation you deserve.  For over 130 collective years, our firm has assisted accident victims in personal injury and wrongful death actions across South Florida.  We seek to obtain compensation for your tangible and intangible damages, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more.  Our skill and dedication has earned us an AV rating from Martindale Hubbell and recognition as one of South Florida’s top firms by the Miami Herald.   Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.



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