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Originally enacted in 1920 to compensate victims of disasters on the high seas, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) enabled widows to recover damages for their husbands’ future earnings. The law was very restrictive. Compensation relied on the salvage of the vessel – no salvage, no compensation.
Today’s DOHSA is less restrictive, but still applies to accidents on the high seas of U.S., state or territorial waters. Over the years airlines pushed to apply this law to air crash litigation when the crash was at sea, since non-financial damages, such as loss of consortium; survivor’s grief; and any pre-death pain and suffering of a decedent were not recoverable under DOHSA.
Before DOHSA was amended in April 2000, the act applied to air crashes within a marine league (approximately 3.4 miles) from U.S. shores. When TWA Flight 800 crashed in July 1996, several miles beyond one marine league of New York City, all aboard died, including children whose parents could prove little economic loss from their deaths.
During litigation resulting from the crash, TWA asked the court to apply DOHSA to Flight 800 in order to limit compensation to families. In response to public pressure, Congress later amended DOHSA in 2000 to apply to crashes beyond 12 nautical miles from shore that occur after July 16, 1996 (the day before the TWA 800 disaster).
Under the new DOHSA, if a commercial aviation accident occurs within the newly established 12-mile limit, then DOHSA will not apply. Instead, the rules applicable under federal, state and other appropriate jurisdictions apply.
The amended DOHSA allows for the recovery of non-pecuniary damages for wrongful death, which is defined as the loss of care, comfort and companionship. It does not allow for the recovery of pain and suffering prior to death, or for the recovery of punitive damages.
For all aviation accidents beyond the 12-mile definition, DOHSA applies. Yet, under the new DOHSA, certain non-economic damages may be recoverable in some cases.
No matter what type of airplane accident, attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger have the experience, training and skill to interpret the varied and complex laws and seek advantageous resolution for our clients. Contact us to learn more.