Death on the High Seas Act
This very sad story is written for CNN by Keith D. Jones, a practicing trial attorney for 32 years based in Louisiana. His son, Gordon, was one of the 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded on April 20, 2010.
His focus now is to right a law that he says is outdated and wrong. As it now stands, his daughter-in-law, Michelle, and her two boys, his grandsons are deprived of receiving fair compensation for the loss of their husband and father.
Obviously no amount of money can ever compensate for a life, he reminds us, but our system provides for monetary damages to be paid by wrongdoers who cause the death of another.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) limits the recovery of damages for wrongful deaths on the high seas. The law passed in 1920 was intended to provide for widows and their children who lost breadwinners at sea. But the law limits the recovery to “pecuniary” damages or out-of-pocket expenses.
That means Michelle and her children can recover the loss of Gordon’s income minus any taxes and minus whatever amount is his proportion, had he lived. An economist determines the present day value and that number is all BP has to pay in compensation.
Senate Bill 3463, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy and H.R. 5503 by Rep. John Conyers seeks to change DOHSA by allowing for recovery beyond pecuniary damages to include non-pecuniary damages which would include “loss of care, company and companionship.”
“When Michelle tells her boys about their dad, she’s not going to show them a pay stub,” Jones says.
Increasing evidence shows that BP was negligent and that the negligence was “willful and wanton” generally the basis for punitive damages. However after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the US. Supreme Court ruled (in Exxon v. Baker) that punitive damages can be awarded in a 1:1 ratio with compensatory damages, Jones says to CNN. By reducing punitive damages, Exxon got a pass and the lesson punitive damages says to other wrongdoers warning them not to repeat the reckless act, is lost.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced S.B. 3345, the Big Oil Polluter Pays Act, that overturned the Valdez decision and asks that compensatory damages not be considered in computing punitive damages in maritime cases.
The cruise and oil industry are on record as opposing changes to DOHSA. As it stands, if a passenger is killed on a cruise ship, it is on the hook for funeral expenses alone.
Jones says BP made bad decision after another always with the goal of making more money.
He recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee about overturning the DOHSA, a woman from Transocean, the drilling company involved with BP, expressed her condolences. The BP executive in the room said nothing to Jones. #