What is DOHSA? Fatal Boating Accidents Explained

DOHSA, or the Death on the High Seas Act, can severely limit your recovery after a fatal boating accident.

The United States Coast Guard recently released its 2019 Florida boating statistics.  One of the most staggering statistics is that, in any given month, at least 10% of all boating accidents are fatal.  The winter months have the highest fatality rate for boating accidents.  From November through March, nearly 20 percent of boating accidents were fatal (compared to 12% the rest of the year).  These figures speak to the significant nature of boating accidents and the potentially catastrophic results for the people involved.

When someone dies in a boating accident, it has a huge impact on the surviving family both emotionally and legally.  The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 46 USC §30301 et seq., applies if the death occurs in international waters.  International waters typically start 3 miles off shore. Given Florida’s extensive coast, and proximity to nearby offshore fishing, many boating accident wrongful death claims in South Florida are arguably subject to DOHSA’s limits on recoverable damages. DOHSA claims are brought under admiralty jurisdiction, which is an ancient type of law that deals with seas and ships. The impact of DOHSA is that it limits the types and amounts of damages that are allowed.  Typically, economic and non-economic damages are recoverable in a land-based wrongful death case; but under DOHSA, non-economic damages like pain and suffering are not allowed.  Experienced maritime trial lawyers can make sure all recoverable damages are claimed under DOHSA, and the difference can be significant.

DOHSA allows for only certain types of economic pecuniary damages. Pecuniary damages include things like funeral and medical costs and lost financial contributions to the family, such as future wages and the loss of care, support, instruction, and services that the decedent would have provided.  These damages can be influenced by the decedent’s health, diligence and work habits, prospects for career advancement, economic conditions of his or her industry, and actual earnings prior to death.  Presenting these claims properly ensures you recover the most you can under DOHSA’s damages limitations.

In short, DOHSA significantly limits the overall recovery for the family.  When pursuing wrongful death claim potentially limited by DOHSA, it is important to have a lawyer who understands the types of potential claims and the recoverable damages in order to maximize your recovery.  The nautical limits of where DOHSA applies vary by region; in South Florida, typically those occurring beyond the leading edge of the Gulfstream are subject to DOHSA. Our firm has decades of experience handling boating fatality cases that are categorized as both DOHSA and non-DOHSA and we know how to ensure you recover everything to which you are entitled in the aftermath of such tragic events.