One of the very first articles I wrote when I started this blog almost eight years ago was about the Death on the High Seas Act. "DOHSA," as it is commonly called, is one of the cruelest and most unfair, if not completely callous, laws imaginable. When an adult child loses a parent on the high seas (defined as outside of U.S. state territorial waters, including the rivers and waters of foreign countries), the law permits, at best, the recovery of only "pecuniary" (financial) losses, such as lost wages (assuming the person is employed). If the person is a retiree, the only damages permitted are the expenses of burying their loved one. Emotional damages such as grief, bereavement, mental anguish, sadness and suffering are prohibited.
The article was titled The Death on the High Seas Act – Screwing American Passengers for 89 Years. It explains how families are not compensated because DOHSA prohibits non-pecuniary damages when their loved ones die on international waters. The cruise lines love DOSHA. Cruise lines have lobbied heavily over the years to keep the ancient maritime law on the books. DOSHA punishes families when they lose a parent, or child, on the high seas, notwithstanding the negligence of a cruise line.
Today, Jill and Kelly Hammer, the daughters of Larry and Cristy Hammer, were reminded of the cruelty of DOSHA when several newspapers covered the latest development regarding their deceased parents, namely that the operator of the La Estrella Amazonica was reportedly grossly negligent and caused the fire which killed the Hammers while they slept in their cabin on La Estrella Amazonica, a river cruise boat on the Peruvian Amazon. It’s a sad story which we wrote about earlier last year – Deadly Amazon River Fire Update: International Expeditions’ La Estrella Amazonica (photos and video).
La Estrella Amazonica has now been renamed by International Expeditions as the Amazon Star.
The Wall Street Journal’s article today, When People Die at Sea, Cruise Operators Often Get a Pass, is "subscription only" although the title suggests that cruise operators are literally getting away with, if not murder, deadly criminal negligence. Another article, published by the World-Herald Bureau, titled Report on Gretna Couple’s Death in Cruise Ship Fire Finds Fault with Ship’s Safety Features, Crew’s Training, reaches the same conclusion.
You can read these articles and make your own mind up about the reportedly unsafe conditions aboard La Estrella Amazonica, the lack of training and qualifications of its crew, and the shifty conduct of the owner and operator of the river cruise boat, International Expeditions, and its president, Van Perry, whose underwriters demanded that Jill and Kelley agree to a gag order (which they rejected) before the cruise operator would meet with them and talk about the circumstances surrounding their parent’s death.
The point to come away with after reading about this terrible ordeal is that this is the exactly the result that the cruise lines want after cruise passengers have been killed. Christina Perez, PR person for the Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA"), was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that if DOHSA was amended to permit fair damages "droves of foreign litigants would "burden an already crowded U.S. judicial system." She also resorted to other scare tactics, saying that "insurance rates for cruise ships would skyrocket, increasing prices and potentially jeopardizing thousands of jobs created by the industry."
This is hardly true. The cruise industry is a rich, billion-dollar business, where it’s CEO’s regularly collect tens of millions of dollars a year, and which registers its cruise ships in foreign countries like the Bahamas and Panama, in order to avoid the taxes, labor laws and safety regulations of the U.S.
Ms. Perez later contradicted herself by claiming that the U.S. Congress did not amend DOHSA to permit additional damages (like it did in aviation cases) because the "maritime industry has a superior safety record."*
CLIA has poured around $30,000,000 into the pockets of Congress in the last decade, according to the Wall Street Journal, to keep the DOHSA legislation which it loves.
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April 13, 2017 Update: Fox News Travel, today, published Cruise ship responsible for couple’s death, report finds which covered the story and discusses the harsh limitations of DOSHA.
April 14, 2017 Update: The U.K.’s Daily Mail, the world largest online newspaper, published Cruise company is finally found responsible for fire that engulfed Amazon tour boat and killed retired Nebraska couple.
May 8, 2017 Update: Fortune: The Cruise Industry’s Priority Is Clear: Profits Over Passenger Safety.
Photo credit: Wall Street Journal
*/The cruise industry, in fact, has experienced far more deaths on its ships than the U.S. commercial aviation fleet in the last decade, although commercial airlines transport over 30 times as many passengers a year. Read our article from several years ago: Cruise Ships: The Deadliest Form of Public Transportation?