As a maritime attorney who’s been handling catastrophic injuries and death cases since 1983, I have always been an advocate to overturn the archaic law referred to as the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which places severe limitations on the amount of money family members can receive when a loved one is killed on the high seas aboard a vessel, including cruise ships. There is simply no basis to restrict recovery in cases involving DOHSA aboard a ship.
A similar restriction applied in cases of airplane crashes resulting in deaths was amended by Congress to remove the pointless limitations on recovery involving airplane crash cases. However, Congress has always refused to do the same for Death on the High Seas cases involving ships, including cruise ships. It has been believed that the main reason is the strong lobbying efforts of the cruise ship industry, which is known to spend millions of dollars in lobbying and contributions each year. The Death on the High Seas Act is another example of favorable laws that the cruise ship companies enjoy that results in denying victims of personal injuries and deaths on cruise ships.
Current legislation has been introduced by Senator Deb Fisher (R-Neb.), and is referred to as the “Hammer’s Law,” named after Larry and Christy Hammer, a couple who died during an Amazon River cruise fire. The investigation of the fire revealed acts described as gross negligence, and even resulted in criminal proceedings. The daughters of the Hammers brought a wrongful death action for the loss of their parents. Under maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act was argued applicable because the deaths occurred beyond the territorial waters of the United States, which triggered application of the Death on the High Seas Act. If applicable, the act would deny the daughters of any recovery for the emotional loss of their parents, basically allowing the operator of the Amazon riverboat to walk away without paying monetary damages for their parents’ deaths.
The current legislation is a direct result of efforts by the daughters to push for legislation to overturn this archaic law with its harsh limitations on recovery for family members who lose their love ones on a cruise ship. We are very proud of the efforts of Kelly Lankford and Jill Malott,who I had the privilege of representing in their efforts to obtain recovery for the wrongful death of their parents despite the Death on the High Seas Act.
Past efforts to amend the Death on the High Seas Act with respect to cruise ship incidents has been unsuccessful as Congress has, for no apparent logical basis, failed to bring the Death on the High Seas Act with respect to cruise ship incidents in line with the Death on the High Seas Act with respect to airplane crashes. For no valid basis, the Act remains as is, limiting recovery for those who die on a cruise ship on the high seas, but allowing recovery for emotional damages if the Death on the High Seas Act applies to an airplane crash. There is simply no reason for the disparate treatment.
Clients over the years are shocked when they find out that a death case can result in minimal recovery if the death happens on the high seas during the cruise. It has been very difficult over the years to explain this to survivors of someone who died on a cruise ship. Once I had the painful job of explaining to clients that their infant, who died on board a cruise ship due to medical negligence, triggered application of the Death on the High Seas Act in the parents’ wrongful death case against the cruise ship company. The only available damages under the Death on the High Seas Act were funeral expenses for the young child. Not only were the parents devastated at the loss of their child, but they were also devastated and distraught to hear that the law allowed the cruise ship company not to pay any damages for the medical negligence that killed their child.
This is just one example of several over the years that I have faced in helping families and victims of cruise ship incidents resulting in catastrophic injuries and death. I spoke before the United States Congress during congressional hearings on cruise ship safety and security laws. I was requested to appear to share my expertise in the area. While the congressional hearings did lead to positive legislation improving cruise ship safety and security, there still remains a lot that needs to be done, including the repeal or amendment of the Death on the High Seas Act with respect to cruise ship incidents.
We will keep a close eye on this pending legislation and support it in any way we can. We hope that the public will write their senators and representatives urging that this current legislation get passed.