Death on the High Seas: When Can Loved Ones File a Wrongful Death Claim?

In January 2018, a Carnival Cruise Line ship was traveling toward the Bahamas from Jacksonville, Florida with hundreds of passengers who had been eagerly anticipating the four-day cruise. One of them would never return home. The unidentified woman fell off the 14th deck to the 11th deck. Very few details have been released, but it’s believed she died quickly. Later that same week, another woman fell overboard to her death on a different Carnival Cruise. And last October, an eight-year-old girl fell to her death on yet another Carnival Cruise ship.

Between 2014 and 2017, 91 deaths were reported on cruise ships arriving in Fort Lauderdale. Exact numbers are hard to come by, since cruise lines wish to avoid the negative publicity, but it’s thought that up to three people die each week on cruise ships around the world. Many of those deaths are from natural causes, but some are not. When a loved one dies at sea, families are often confused about their legal rights and options.

Maritime law is arguably among the most complicated and challenging areas of the law, and so it’s necessary for families to find a lawyer who is well-versed in maritime laws, including the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA).

What does DOHSA cover?

DOHSA was originally passed in 1920 to allow family members to recover compensation when maritime workers were killed at sea, beyond the three-mile territorial limit. The act also covers the deaths of passengers on seafaring vessels, as well as workers and passengers on commercial airliners, provided they are killed past the 12-mile limit for international waters.

When can a wrongful death claim be filed?

Family members may file a wrongful death claim under DOHSA if a passenger or worker on a cruise ship or other seafaring vessel dies as a result of the ship’s owner’s negligence or poor judgment. Families can also file a claim if the death occurred because the vessel was not seaworthy.

Some common examples of how deaths occur at sea are:

  • Overturned vessel
  • Fall from heights
  • Onboard fire or explosion
  • Mechanical error or defective equipment
  • Lack of timely and appropriate medical care
  • Inadequate safety precautions
  • Inadequate training of personnel

Another common cause of death at sea is infectious diseases, such as norovirus. Cruise ships have gained notoriety for the prevalence of disease outbreaks, given the sheer number of people in close proximity to each other.

Who can file a wrongful death claim?

DOHSA has strict requirements regarding which family members are eligible to file a wrongful death claim under this act. The only people who can file a claim are:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Parent
  • Dependent family members

Long Island maritime lawyers

It isn’t easy to make decisions in the wake of a loved one’s sudden death. Acute grief can make it difficult to think clearly. At Edelman, Krasin & Jaye, our maritime lawyers on Long Island are here to answer your questions and help you understand the situation from a legal standpoint.

Our seasoned litigators know the ins and outs of filing wrongful death claims under the Death on the High Seas Act. We urge surviving family members to call us right away at 1-800-469-7429 to request a free consultation.

Additional resources on maritime law:

  1. Cruise Critic, When a Passenger Dies at Sea: What You Need to Know,
  2. Newsweek, Carnival Cruise Passenger’s Death After Two-Story Fall Marks at Least Second Falling Death for Carnival in a Year,