Court: Death on High Seas Act Partially Applied in Mesothelioma Case

warship1.jpgA federal judge in Florida ruled the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which limits damages to survivors of sailors who die at sea, is only partially applicable in an asbestos-related wrongful death case where the decedent suffered some exposure while on a ship at sea.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida partially granted the defense request to apply DOSHA as it relates to the limitation of non-pecuniary damages. However, it allowed that such damages are recoverable under the general maritime survival law, the Jones Act, as long as they are limited to damages for suffering during the decedent’s lifetime.

The ruling is important because many of those who have fallen ill or died as a result of asbestos exposure came in contact with the substance while working with or for the U.S. Navy, since most ships built in the 20th century, particularly prior to the 1980s, contained asbestos.

In this case, as our mesothelioma lawyers understand it, the decedent served in the U.S. Navy and was exposed both on land and sea. The question was the degree to which that exposure occurred in each location.

After the case was first filed by the decedent’s widow, it was transferred to multidistrict litigation proceedings in Pennsylvania for pretrial action. It was there a judge ruled maritime law should be applied to the case.

However, the defendant sought to further limit damages by arguing adherence to DOHSA, which would not allow compensation for any non-monetary damages. The act is codified in 46 U.S. Code Chapter 303. It was originally passed to permit recovery of damages against shipowners by dependent families of those killed as a result of negligence or unseaworthiness in international waters. (It’s also sometimes applied to airline disasters over water, within 12 nautical miles of U.S. territorial limits.)

The Jones Act, meanwhile, is specifically applicable to sailors and their survivors. Damages permitted under the Jones Act include those for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of wages
  • Loss of support to widow or dependents
  • Loss of value of household services
  • Funeral expenses
  • Fringe benefits
  • Mental anguish
  • Pain and suffering prior to death (if the action is for wrongful death)

In this case, the defendant argued that because DOHSA should apply, the plaintiff widow should not be allowed to recover for loss of society and consortium or pain and suffering prior to death. It argued the act controls recoverable damages for the alleged wrongful death of a Navy sailor who alleges an injury resulting from asbestos exposure at sea.

While the plaintiff conceded that some exposure to the toxic fiber did occur at sea, she argued the majority of exposure happened at port and other areas on land. That, she asserted, would render DOHSA inapplicable. She refuted the assertion that just because her deceased husband suffered some exposure at sea, no matter how minimal, that the entire claim should be controlled by DOHSA.

The federal court ruled DOHSA applies to deaths caused on the high seas, but it could find no other case in which a court restricted recoverable damages under the act for exposure to asbestos when the victim was exposed both on land and sea.

However, the court did find that because the decedent was a seaman, recovery of damages was limited under general maritime law and the Jones Act. Thus, his widow could collect for pecuniary damages and also for pain and suffering, but only pain and suffering that occurred prior to his death.

Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling 1-800-275-3332. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources:
Death on the High Seas Act applies in part to former sailor’s asbestos case, Oct. 28, 2014, By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo, Legal Newsline

More Blog Entries:
Rost v. Ford Motor Co. – Court Upholds Plaintiff Award, Clarifies “Any Exposure”, June 2, 2014, Florida Asbestos Lawyer Blog

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