Congress Introduces Legislation to Amend DOSHA

Congress introduced legislation on Wednesday which will strengthen the rights of cruise passengers to seek compensation when cruise lines negligently cause the death of their loved ones on the high seas.

As matters now stand, the statute which governs deaths in international waters, the Death on the High Seas Act ("DOSHA"), bars the recovery of emotional damages, such as pain and suffering and mental anguish, when a passenger dies outside of state territorial waters. This means that when a non-wage earner, such as a retiree or a child, dies due to a cruise line's negligence, their surviving family members can recover only very limited compensation, usually only burial and funeral expenses.

Proposed improvements to the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, if enacted, would permit the families of Miami Cruise Linespassengers who die on ships in international waters as a result of the negligence of a cruise line to seek "non-pecuniary" compensation, as permitted by most states, such as damages for grief and bereavement. 

Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Congressman Ted Poe and Congressman Jim Himes sponsored the legislation in the House of Representatives, while Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator Edward Markey sponsored similar legislation in the Senate. You can read a press statement by Congresswoman Matsui here and the statement of  Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Himes here.

Congress originally enacted DOSHA back in 1920 when few state wrongful deaths statutes permitted family members to recover damages for the emotional suffering experienced by family members who lose a loved one. Since then, the majority os states have substantially improved their statutes to permit the full recovery of emotional damages. In 2000, Congress amended DOHSA to permit damages in commercial aviation accidents which occur in international waters. DOSHA used to bar emotional damages in such cases.

At the moment, DOHSA remains the same in maritime cases as when it was enacted 97 years ago. The proposed amendments to DOSHA will ensure that families of victims at sea are provided with the same rights as airline passengers.and are finally able to pursue fair compensation. 

Kelly Hammer Lankford and Jill Hammer Malott, the daughters of Larry and Christy Hammer, who perished during a deadly river cruise fire last year, are part of the efforts to amend DOSHA. Their parents died aboard the Estrella Amazonica, operated by International Expeditions of Alabama, on the Amazon River in Peru. International Expeditions is trying to dodge accountability by using DOSHA as a liability shield. (International Expeditions subsequently renamed the ill-fated La Estrella Amazonica as the Amazon Star). The daughters commented on the proposed legislation, saying:

“We are thrilled that our legislators are trying to do what the cruise companies have not: Protect passengers. Through legislative reform, American travelers would finally be able to hold cruise companies accountable when tragedy strikes, stopping these companies from hiding behind an antiquated law to avoid responsibility for their actions.”

The cruise industry, which has lobbied heavily against efforts to reform the antiquated maritime statute, is expected to resist the proposed legislation.

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Photo Credit: Jim Walker

April 28, 2017 Update: The Miami New Times covered the story in Congress Introduces New Cruise Ship Safety Regulations.