"Obsolete" Law Prevents Fair Compensation


Published Jun 25, 2017 7:33 PM by Kendall Carver and Jamie Barnett

“I’m sorry, but your loved one’s life was worthless, economically speaking.”

Just imagine hearing those words while you are grieving the loss of your spouse, parent, or child. Countless people actually have. Many have suffered what professional mental health experts refer to as “secondary victimization” when their retired or minor aged loved one dies while on a cruise ship vacation. 

Why? Because of an antiquated, obsolete 1926 law known as the Death on the High Seas Act or DOHSA. This act, which was originally intended to be a sword for any claimant whose seafaring relative died due to a wrongful act, negligence or default on the high seas, has actually become a shield for the modern cruise line industry. 

Back in 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all on board. Because the plane went down approximately nine miles offshore of Long Island, NY, DOHSA applied. That made the lives of 16 teen-aged victims from Pennsylvania nearly worthless from a legal standpoint.

Bereft and outraged, the determined family members of those victims rightfully sought to change that outcome, and with the help of congressional representatives from Pennsylvania DOHSA §30307, was introduced which retroactively allowed compensatory non-economic damages for “commercial aviation accidents.” 

However, DOHSA’s original non-economic damage prohibition was left intact for all other maritime fatalities, due to intense lobbying by shipping interests.

What does this mean? If you fly from Miami to London on an airplane and it should crash, you can take legal action for compensatory non-economic damages because of the death of a passenger. However, if you take a cruise ship from Miami to London and you or a relative are killed because of poor medical care or other reasons, you cannot. 

The International Cruise Victims Association has worked with congress to initiate legislation which would correct this injustice. That work has resulted in what is now known as the Cruise Passenger Protection Act (CPPA) HR 2173 in the House and  S 965 in the Senate. Where DOHSA is concerned, this legislation would make the requirements for the cruise industry in line with those of commercial airlines. It would ensure that families of cruise ship victims are able to pursue fair compensation after a death on the high seas in the same way families of airline disasters can.

Dedicated International Cruise Victims Association members will be going to Washington on July 10 to gain support for this important legislation. 

Kendall Carver is Chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association.
Jamie Barnett is President of the International Cruise Victims Association.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.