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decided: June 23, 1986.



O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which Brennan, Marshall, Powell, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Powell, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 233.

Author: O'connor

[ 477 U.S. Page 209]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents' husbands were killed when petitioner Air Logistic's helicopter, in which the decedents were traveling, crashed into the high seas. The issue presented is whether the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 41 Stat. 537, 46 U. S. C. § 761 et seq., provides the exclusive remedy by which respondents may recover against petitioner for the wrongful death of their husbands, or whether they may also recover the measure of damages provided by the Louisiana wrongful death statute, La. Civ. Code Ann., Art. 2315 (West Supp. 1986), applying either of its own force or as surrogate federal law under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), 67 Stat. 462, as amended, 43 U. S. C. § 1331 et seq.


The husbands of respondents Corrine Taylor and Beth Tallentire worked on drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. On August 6, 1980, respondents' husbands were killed while being transported in a helicopter owned and operated by petitioner Air Logistics (hereafter petitioner), a Division of Offshore Logistics, Inc., from a drilling platform to Houma, Louisiana. The crash occurred approximately 35 miles off the coast of Louisiana, well over the 3-mile limit that separates Louisiana's territorial waters from the high seas for purposes of DOHSA.

Respondents each filed wrongful death suits in United States District Court, raising claims under DOHSA, OCSLA, and the law of Louisiana. These actions were later consolidated in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Upon petitioner's pretrial motion for partial summary judgment, the District Court ruled that DOHSA provides the exclusive remedy for death on the high seas, and it therefore dismissed respondents' claims based upon the Louisiana wrongful death statute. Petitioner admitted liability and the trial was limited to the question of damages. Because DOHSA limits recovery to "fair and just compensation for . . . pecuniary loss,"

[ 477 U.S. Page 210]

     the District Court's awards to respondents did not include damages for non-pecuniary losses. 46 U. S. C. § 762.

Respondents appealed the District Court's dismissal of their OCSLA and state law wrongful death claims, contending that they were entitled to non-pecuniary damages under the Louisiana wrongful death statute. See La. Civ. Code Ann., Art. 2315(B) (West Supp. 1986) (permitting recovery for both pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, "[including] loss of consortium, service, and society"). They argued that the Louisiana statute applied to this helicopter crash on the high seas, either of its own force by virtue of the saving provision in § 7 of DOHSA, 46 U. S. C. § 767, or as adopted federal law through OCSLA. See 43 U. S. C. § 1333(a)(2)(A). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the District Court's denial of benefits recoverable under Louisiana law, with one judge specially concurring and another judge dissenting. See 754 F.2d 1274 (1985).

The Court of Appeals first observed that even if OCSLA did apply to this action, OCSLA adopts state law as surrogate federal law only "[to] the extent [the state laws] are . . . not inconsistent with . . . other Federal laws." 43 U. S. C. § 1333(a)(2)(A). Because the precedent of the Fifth Circuit held that DOHSA applies to a helicopter crash on the high seas, the court concluded that Louisiana law could not be applied through OCSLA as the Louisiana wrongful death scheme was inconsistent with DOHSA. Accordingly, the court turned to the question whether state law could apply of its own force by virtue of § 7 of DOHSA, which provides:

"The provisions of any State statute giving or regulating rights of action or remedies for death shall not be affected by this chapter. Nor shall this chapter apply to the Great Lakes or to any waters within the territorial limits of any State, or to any navigable waters in the Panama Canal Zone." 46 U. S. C. § 767.

After examining the legislative history of § 7, the Court of Appeals concluded that that section was intended to preserve

[ 477 U.S. Page 211]

     the applicability of state wrongful death statutes on the high seas. It further held that Louisiana had legislative jurisdiction to extend its wrongful death statute to remedy deaths on the high seas and that Louisiana in fact intended its statute to have that effect. In reaching its result, the court acknowledged that the disunity that its decision would create was "profoundly unsettling," 754 F.2d, at 1284, but ultimately concluded that "[our] desire for a uniform, consistent, scheme of maritime death remedies cannot justify a refusal to follow" the perceived legislative will. Id., at 1288.

Judge Jolly filed a special concurrence, observing that although the court's result was compelled by § 7, it would create "significant problems in the field of maritime law because it defies reason, runs contrary to principles of the general precedent in the field, and creates all sorts of internal inconsistencies in the prosecution of cases dealing with death on the high seas." Id., at 1289. Judge Garza dissented, arguing that § 7 was intended to preserve state wrongful death actions only in territorial waters and echoing the view of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the application of state law to wrongful death actions arising on the high seas would be "'as damaging to uniformity in wrongful death actions as it is illogical.'" Ibid. (quoting Nygaard v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc., 701 F.2d 77, 80 (CA9 1983)).

Because the Fifth Circuit's decision creates the potential for disunity in the administration of wrongful death remedies for causes of action arising from accidents on the high seas and is in conflict with the prevailing view in other courts that DOHSA pre-empts state law wrongful death statutes in the area of its operation, we granted certiorari. 474 U.S. 816 (1985). We now hold that neither OCSLA nor DOHSA requires or permits the application of Louisiana law in this case, and accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

[ 477 U.S. Page 212]


The tortuous development of the law of wrongful death in the maritime context illustrates the truth of Justice Cardozo's observation that "[death] is a composer of strife by the general law of the sea as it was for many centuries by the common law of the land." Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, Inc., 287 U.S. 367, 371 (1932). In The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199 (1886), this Court held that in the absence of an applicable state or federal statute, general federal maritime law did not afford a wrongful death cause of action to the survivors of individuals killed on the high seas, or waters navigable from the sea. It reasoned that because the common law did not recognize a civil action for injury which resulted in death on the land, no different rule should apply with respect to maritime deaths. Unable to tolerate this archaism, some courts began to allow recovery for deaths within state territorial waters if an applicable state statute permitted such recovery. See, e. g., The City of Norwalk, 55 F. 98, 103-108 (SDNY 1893) (state wrongful death statute may validly be applied to "maritime affairs within the state limits"), aff'd, 61 F. 364, 367-368 (CA2 1894) (application of state wrongful death statute to accident in state territorial waters valid "in the absence of any regulation of the subject by congress"). See also Steamboat Co. v. Chase, 16 Wall. 522 (1873).

In an attempt to alleviate the harshness of the rule of The Harrisburg, this Court also recognized in The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398 (1907), that state wrongful death statutes could, in some limited circumstances, be applied to fatal accidents occurring on the high seas. In The Hamilton, the Court held that where the statutes of the United States enabled the owner of a vessel to transfer its liability to a fund and to claim the exclusive jurisdiction of admiralty, and where that fund was being distributed, a Delaware citizen's claim under Delaware law against another citizen of Delaware for wrongful death on the high seas would be recognized in admiralty. The Court noted that "[in] such circumstances all claims to

[ 477 U.S. Page 213]

     which the admiralty does not deny existence must be recognized whether admiralty liens or not." Id., at 406.

The Hamilton has sometimes been understood to endorse a broader application of state law on the high seas than its holding suggested. Some courts came to rely on dicta in The Hamilton for the "questionable" proposition that if a state wrongful death statute was intended to extend to torts occurring on the high seas, then an action between citizens of that State for a wrongful death on the high seas could lie in admiralty. Day, Maritime Wrongful Death and Survival Recovery: The Need for Legislative Reform, 64 Colum. L. Rev. 648, 650 (1964). See also Wilson v. Transocean Airlines, 121 F.Supp. 85, 88 (ND Cal. 1954); Comment, 51 Calif. L. Rev. 389 (1963) ("Because the constitutionality of the application of a state wrongful death statute to occurrences on the high seas was doubtful, the cases [recognizing such an application] had to rest on farfetched theories"); Putnam, The Remedy for Death at Sea, 22 Case & Com. 125, 126-127 (1915). There was continued doubt, in spite of The Hamilton 's dicta, as to the States' competence to provide wrongful death relief for causes of action arising on the high seas. See Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 393, n. 10 (1970) ("The general understanding was that the statutes of the coastal States, which provided remedies for deaths within territorial waters, did not apply beyond state boundaries"); H. R. Rep. No. 674, 66th Cong., 2d Sess., 2, 4 (1920) (accompanying DOHSA) ("there is no right of action for death under" maritime law; "the right to affirmative action [outside of limitation of liability actions] in the admiralty against ship or owner has never been sustained by the Supreme Court").

[ 477 U.S. Page 214]

     Even where The Hamilton was understood to sanction a state remedy for the high seas, "probably because most state death statutes were not meant to have application to the high seas, [the] possibility [of recovery under state law for deaths on the high seas] did little to fill the vacuum" left by The Harrisburg. Page 214} Moragne v. States Marine Lines, supra, at 393, n. 10. Moreover, those state wrongful death statutes that were held to apply to the high seas had limited effectiveness because, under the dicta in The Hamilton, "[legislative] jurisdiction to impose a liability for a wrongful act at sea beyond the boundaries of the state had to rest upon one of two theories: either (1) that the vessel upon which the wrongful act occurred was constructively part of the territory of the state; or (2) that the wrongdoer was a vessel or citizen of the state subject to its jurisdiction even when beyond its territorial limits. Neither theory sufficed for every situation." Wilson v. Transocean Airlines, supra, at 88. Such conflict of laws problems arose out of collisions between vessels incorporated in different States and between American-flag vessels and those flying the flag of a foreign jurisdiction that in one celebrated case the perplexed court simply denied recovery entirely. See, e. g., The Middlesex, 253 F.142 (Mass. 1916) (where collision on high seas was between two American vessels whose owners resided or were incorporated in different States, recovery could not be had under any of the potentially applicable state statutes). See also Day, supra , at 650-651, and n. 13; Robinson, Wrongful Death in Admiralty and the Conflict of Laws, 36 Colum. L. Rev. 406 (1936). In sum, for all practical purposes, from the date of The Harrisburg until the passage of DOHSA in 1920, "there was no remedy for death on the high seas caused by breach of one of the duties imposed by federal maritime law." Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S., at 393.

It was in this atmosphere that Congress considered legislation designed to provide a uniform and effective wrongful death remedy for survivors of persons killed on the high seas. See id., at 398, 401; Wilson v. Transocean Airlines, supra, at 88-90. In 1920, Congress enacted DOHSA, in which it finally repudiated the rule of The Harrisburg for maritime deaths occurring beyond state territorial waters by providing for a federal maritime remedy for wrongful deaths more than

[ 477 U.S. Page 215]

     three miles from shore.*fn1 DOHSA limits the class of beneficiaries to the decedent's "wife, husband, parent, child, or dependent relative," 46 U. S. C. § 761, establishes a 3-year statute of limitations period, § 763a, allows a suit filed by the victim to continue as a wrongful death action if the victim dies of his injuries while suit is pending, § 765, provides that contributory negligence will not bar recovery, § 766, and declares that "recovery . . . shall be a fair and just compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained by the persons for whose benefit the suit is brought. . . ." § 762.

As this Court explained in Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 621-622 (1978):

"In the half century between 1920 and 1970, deaths on the high seas gave rise to federal suits under DOHSA, while those in territorial waters were largely governed by state wrongful-death statutes, [the primary exception being survivor's suits for wrongful death under the Jones Act, which gives a remedy no matter where the wrong takes place.] DOHSA brought a measure of uniformity and predictability to the law on the high seas, but in territorial waters, where The Harrisburg made state law the only source of a wrongful-death remedy, the continuing impact of that decision produced uncertainty and incongruity. The reasoning of The Harrisburg, which was dubious at best in 1886, became less and less satisfactory as the years passed.

" In 1970, therefore, the Court overruled The Harrisburg. In Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375,

[ 477 U.S. Page 216]

     the Court held that a federal remedy for wrongful death does exist under general maritime law. The case concerned a death in Florida's territorial waters. The defendant argued that Congress, by limiting DOHSA to the high seas, had evidenced an intent to preclude federal judicial remedies in territorial waters. The Court concluded, however, that the reason Congress confined DOHSA to the high seas was to prevent the Act from abrogating, by its own force, the state remedies then available in state waters. Id., at 400." (Footnotes omitted.)

Subsequently, the Court confronted some of the various subsidiary questions concerning the Moragne federal death remedy in Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573 (1974), in which it was held that awards in a Moragne- based suit could include compensation for loss of support and services, for funeral expenses, and for loss of society, but not for mental anguish. Finally, in Higginbotham, the Court ruled that the non-pecuniary loss standard provided by DOHSA controlled on the high seas, and could not be supplemented by the measure of damages recognized in Gaudet for Moragne causes of action. In so doing, the Court concluded:

" We realize that, because Congress has never enacted a comprehensive maritime code, admiralty courts have often been called upon to supplement maritime statutes. The Death on the High Seas Act, however, announces Congress' considered judgment on such issues as the beneficiaries, the limitations period, contributory negligence, survival, and damages . . . . The Act does not address every issue of wrongful-death law . . . but when it does speak directly to a question, the courts are not free to 'supplement' Congress' answer so thoroughly that the Act becomes meaningless." 436 U.S., at 625.

With this background, we now proceed to the question at hand: whether the DOHSA measure of recovery may be supplemented

[ 477 U.S. Page 217]

     by the remedies provided by state law, through either OCSLA or § 7 of DOHSA.


As explained above, DOHSA is intended to provide a maritime remedy for deaths stemming from wrongful acts or omissions "occurring on the high seas." 46 U. S. C. § 761. OCSLA, by contrast, provides an essentially nonmaritime remedy and controls only on "the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf, and artificial islands and fixed structures" erected thereon. 43 U. S. C. § 1333(a)(2)(A). By its terms, OCSLA must be "construed in such a manner that the character of the waters above the outer Continental Shelf as high seas . . . shall not be affected." § 1332(2). Within the area covered by OCSLA, federal law controls but the law ...

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