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The survivors of victims of maritime casualties are often left bewildered after a loved one passes away. In seeking justice, these survivors may attempt to bring actions in state court, alleging various claims. However, these claims are often removed from the state court to the federal court, as the defense argues that DOHSA is the exclusive remedy in maritime casualty and that DOHSA is a federal statute, giving rise to federal question subject matter jurisdiction. However, pursuant to its legislative history and the “savings to suitors” clause, DOHSA is not a federal question for the purposes of federal jurisdiction.

The Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA” or the “Act”)[1] is a federal statute that limits the amount recoverable by survivors of a maritime casualty to pecuniary damages. If a claim falls under the gambit of DOHSA, it is the exclusive remedy of the survivors. It lies in stark contrast to all other types of wrongful death in its severe limitation of damages. Historically, a claim for wrongful death only accrued under DOHSA if the death occurred on the high seas—more than two miles from a state’s territorial waters. However, this caveat was later amended to bring all claims, no matter how close to shore as falling under the Act and serving as an exclusive remedy.[2] In fact, death occurring on lakes in foreign countries has been deemed as falling under DOHSA.

The “savings to suitors” clause was enacted by Congress as part of the Judiciary Act of 1979.[3] While federal district courts have original jurisdiction over admiralty actions, claims are “saved to suitors” if a federal law contains a jurisdictional savings clause, enabling suitors to bring their claims in state court. Luckily, DOHSA contains a jurisdictional savings clause: “[T]he first sentence of § 7 [in the Act] was intended only to serve as a jurisdictional saving clause, ensuring that state courts enjoyed the right to entertain causes of action and provide wrongful death remedies both for accidents arising on territorial waters and, under DOHSA, for accidents occurring more than one marine league from shore.”[4] Although the state territorial water exception no longer applies, there does continue to be a jurisdictional savings clause in the Act.

However, even in the absence of this jurisdictional savings clause, DOHSA claims and other admiralty claims are not removable to federal court when properly brought in state court.[5] On its face, the Act provides for a cause of action in admiralty.[6] In fact, the Southern District of Florida has emphasized that although statutory admiralty claims may appear to be federal questions for the purposes of jurisdiction, they are not.[7] To further reinforce the fact that DOHSA claims are not federal statutes for the purpose of federal jurisdiction, the Argandona Court cites the Supreme Court of the United States of America in support of the proposition that DOHSA claims specifically do not arise under the “laws of the United States” for the purposes of federal question jurisdiction.[8]

Therefore, DOHSA claims are proper if brought in state court. Furthermore, once brought in state court, these claims are not removable to the federal court based on federal question or admiralty jurisdiction. Although DOHSA is arguably a draconian act that unreasonably limits the remedies available to survivors of a victim of a maritime casualty, survivors can rest assured that they have a legal basis to bring their claims in state court and avoid removal to the federal court.

Mustafa Dandashly

[1] 46 U.S.C.. § 330 et seq.

[2] Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207, 221 (1986)

[3] 28 U.S.C. § 133

[4] Tallentire, 477 U.S. at 221

[5] See Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 377-79 (1959) (“[I]t becomes clear that the words of [the Jurisdiction and Removal Act of 1875] do not extend, and could not reasonably be interpreted to extend, to cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”).

[6] “Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas . . . the personal representative of the decedent may maintain a suit for damages in the district courts of the United States, in admiralty.” The Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C.. § 330 et seq. (emphasis added).

[7] Argandona v. Lloyd’s Registry of Shipping, 804 F. Supp. 326, 327 (S.D. Fla. 1992).

[8] Argandona v. Lloyd’s Registry of Shipping, 804 F. Supp. 326, 327 (S.D. Fla. 1992) (citing Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959).