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Death on the High Seas Act

In 1920, Congress accounted for the families of those whose loved ones were out at sea who lost their lives by enacting the Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, to redress the families for their loss with a monetary award. DOHSA is one part of a number of laws aimed at addressing various tortious and similar acts on the high seas so that when something occurs, it may be covered under one of a number of statutes.

An important limitation of DOHSA is that it only redresses family members when the incident occurs within three nautical miles of the shore. Beyond that, a wrongful death claim may be redressed by a different statute.


For DOHSA to apply, the act that gives rise to any claim must have occurred under maritime jurisdiction. In the 1972 case of Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. v. City of Cleveland, the United States Supreme Court set out the elements for such jurisdiction. The case involved an airplane that struck a flock of birds, causing the engine to malfunction. Due to the malfunction, the plane took a nosedive into the Great Lakes. The issue before the court was whether a claim was a maritime claim when the plane landed in the water. The Supreme Court ruled that because the plane flies primarily in places that do not have maritime jurisdiction then the crash is not covered by maritime law.                                                                                      

Consequently, the following requirements must be meet for a ship to fall under maritime jurisdiction:

  • It must be a vessel
  • It must be in navigable waters
  • It must be doing something of “a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.

The Supreme Court further clarified that there must be a nexus between the act and the maritime activity, i.e. the wrongful act has a significant relationship with traditional maritime activity. In addition, there is a reckoning of the potential impact of the incident on commercial maritime activity.

In a later case, the Supreme Court clarified that a vessel is a device that is designed for navigation across the water. A dock that floats away from a port is not a “vessel” under this definition.

Later Amendment

In 2000, Congress amended DOHSA to include airline disasters that occur in international waters. This amendment acted to widen the breadth of the original Supreme Court definition of a vessel. Instead of only an object designed for seafaring as a “vessel” under DOHSA, a family member who loses someone at sea in an airline accident now can sue under DOHSA.

Note that this amendment is not an overhaul of the definition of a vessel, just an added provision. The same definition of vessel applies, so a dock that floats from a marina is still not a vessel under DOHSA. In addition to a vessel, an accident involving an airplane over navigable waters can also fall under DOHSA.

Have you or a family member been a victim of crime on the high seas? Know your rights. Contact the Kolodny law firm, a Houston maritime law firm fighting for the rights of maritime victims.

(image courtesy of Simon Abrams)

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