If you are retired or a child and die on a cruise ship due to the cruise ship's negligence, the cruise line will consider your life to be worthless under current maritime law.
Your family will face a law called the Death on the High Seas Act, commonly known as "DOHSA." In 1920, Congress passed DOHSA to provide for limited recovery when a seaman died at sea. Congress did not want widows to become destitute when their husbands died in international waters. So they passed DOHSA which provides that a widow can recover her husband’s wages and, perhaps, some money to bury him if his body was found.
DOHSA Provides No Recovery for Pain, Suffering, Grief, or Bereavement if You or Your Loved One Dies at Sea
Applied to cruise lines, DOHSA provides no recovery at all in many circumstances. Surviving family members may potentially recover only limited financial damages after proving the cruise line’s negligence caused the death. However, there is no recovery for the deceased passenger’s pain, agony and suffering before he dies. The surviving family members’ grief and bereavement are irrelevant. The children’s loss of their parent’s love, guidance and nurturing are of no consequence.
All of these damages may be recoverable if you die in a car accident or airplane accident en route to the port. But on the high seas, only financial losses such as lost wages or burial/funeral expenses are permitted.
For this reason, there is no basis for any recovery if the missing passenger is a retiree or a child. If the body of a retired passenger is not recovered, and there are no burial expenses, the family receives nothing. This is a hard pill for a grieving family to swallow. Most people who contact our office are dumbfounded when they learn this.
Cruise Lines Love DOHSA
Unlike companies ashore, cruise lines face virtually no financial exposure when their guests are killed or disappear. Even if the cruise line is clearly negligent or acts maliciously, DOHSA provides no recovery when the victim is a retiree or a child. Cruise lines and their insurance companies profit greatly due to this ancient law.
Historically, DOHSA was applied to aviation disasters when airplanes crashed in international waters. The families of dead children or elderly (retired) parents were excluded from any recovery by virtue of DOHSA. But following the crash of a jet in the Atlantic full of US citizens (TWA flight 800), the American public became outraged by this injustice. In response, Congress excluded air travel from DOHSA. The same thing needs to happen with cruise travel.
Victims Fight for A Change
The International Cruise Victims organization ("ICV") has been trying to amend DOHSA to permit the recovery of fair compensation when passengers die during cruises. A cruise safety bill pending before Congress originally contained a provision to amend DOHSA so that there is no difference if an American citizen dies ashore or at sea. The cruise industry spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to eliminate the amendment. Ultimately, the cruise lines’ big bucks and PR machine won out.
As far as deaths on ships go, DOHSA is just the way it existed in 1920 – 89 years ago. In 1920, relatively few passengers cruised a year. Now the number is around 13,000,000. Congress never envisioned that DOHSA would bar all recovery for any of the million of retired passengers and children who cruise annually. The Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA") doesn’t tell its 13,000,000 customers or 16,000 travel agents that it lobbies each year to make certain that DOHSA remains in place.
A cruise line is the only place in the world where a child or retired passenger’s life is of absolutely no consequence in the eyes of the law. Die on a cruise ship due to bad medical care or disappear under mysterious circumstances? The cruise lines have spent millions of dollars to make certain that your loved ones don’t get a dime.