Death on the High Seas Act
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) is a wrongful death statute that allows the families of those killed in maritime accidents to seek recovery of damages against shipowners. Although Congress passed the law in 1920, DOHSA has become important in aviation law because it also applies to airline accidents that happen over open waters or the “high seas.”
Originally, the law covered accidents that occurred more than three nautical miles from land and restricted plaintiffs to recover only pecuniary, or economically-based, compensatory damages. Non-economic damages such as pain, suffering or loss of companionship were not permitted. The TWA 800 disaster changed that.
In 1996, TWA 800 crashed into the ocean approximately eight nautical miles from land, which would have caused DOHSA to be applied. That also meant the families would have been unable to recover non-economic damages from the parties at fault. However, 11 years earlier in 1988, U.S. territorial waters were extended to 12 miles by President Reagan. Plaintiffs in the TWA 800 case argued that this change effectively meant the high seas began 12 miles out — not three miles — and, therefore, DOHSA did not apply. The courts agreed, and the families were able to claim both economic and non-economic damages under general maritime law.
Subsequently, following the TWA 800 disaster, Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act and added a provision to include the new 12-mile boundary and the ability for plaintiffs to recover non-economic damages.