Florida Third District Court of Appeals Allows Wrongful Death Suit to Continue in State Court
If a crew member suffers an accident or death while working on board or nearby for a ship, she or he has access to legal relief under federal statutes. Federal maritime law covers a variety of vessel and dock issues, but is not the only avenue toward obtaining damages. A recent state appellate case reveals how an injured party or an estate can pursue action in the state’s civil court system for a death that occurred more than three miles off of Florida’s coast. Florida wrongful death and maritime law can be a complex area where it is beneficial to have an attorney guide you through the process of filing suit.
The decedent was a crew member for a scuba dive charter boat. On the night he died, he was helping assist customers taking a night dive. Adverse currents swept some of the divers up to a half mile away, so he snorkeled to guide them back to the boat. The crew member suffered a heart attack while doing so. The crew member’s wife filed suit against the dive center and the captain of ship, alleging negligence, unseaworthiness, state tort negligence against the dive center, Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) against the dive center, state tort negligence against the captain, and DOHSA against the captain.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing the cause of action was controlled by DOHSA as the death occurred more than three nautical miles away from shore. The deceased’s wife countered the death took place within Florida’s territorial waters, which extend past the three nautical miles to the edge of the Gulf Stream. The trial court took judicial notice the wreck was 6.5 nautical miles from the shore and granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, agreeing with the defendants’ assertion that remedies under DOHSA were only available in federal court.
The appellate court noted the DOHSA statute plainly states their statute does not affect the law of a state regulating the right to recover for death and that it does not apply to waters within the territorial limits of the state. (See 46 U.S.C. § 30308(a)-(b).) Florida’s Atlantic boundary extends to three miles from the coast or to the shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream, whichever is greater. This can be seven or more nautical miles off of Florida’s coast. Previously, the court held Florida’s tort laws extend to the full limits of its constitutional boundaries, including its territorial water.
The appellate court felt an analysis was necessary to determine whether the federal DOHSA statute meant to limit the state’s wrongful death remedy to be less than Florida’s entire territory. Florida is unique to other coastal states whose limits are often 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States. DOHSA specifies an estate can pursue a claim for a death caused by neglect, a wrongful act, or default if it occurs more than 3 nautical miles beyond the shore, but it also allows state action. The court felt it best to view limit of 3 miles as a general provision, and the section regarding state law as one providing specific exceptions. The appellate court also noted Congress used similar language in the Submerged Lands Act, but chose to strengthen the limit on three nautical by eliminating the possibility that a “boundary” could extend past three nautical miles from the shore. The state appellate court reasoned if Congress intended to something similar for DOHSA, it would have utilized the same language.
The appellate court also looked at the purpose of DOHSA, which was to provide a remedy where there was none previously. The court did not feel its intent was to preempt state remedies for negligence and wrongful death. A federal court decision, Blome v. Aerospatiale Helicopter Corp., 924 F. Supp. 805, 813 (S.D. Texas 1996), aff’d without opinion, 114 F. 3d 1184 (5th Cir. 1997), analyzed a similar situation and reached the same conclusion. The court felt the true remaining question is whether or not the death occurred within the territorial waters of Florida. The motions to dismiss were reversed and the case remanded to the trial court.
The wrongful death attorneys of Donaldson & Weston are experienced litigators that can assist you with your claim. Call our office today at 772-266-555 or 561-299-3999 for a free, confidential consultation.
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