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Families of Deepwater Horizon Rig Victims May Receive Little Help

As oil continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, the damage is being felt my more and more Gulf Coast residents. But while BP has recently pledged billions of dollars to help those affected by the spill, one group of victims may go disturbingly under-compensated.

As it turns out, the widows and families of those individuals killed on the Deepwater Horizon rig may be barred from recovering damages under state-based wrongful death lawsuits because of a federal law passed in the 1920's called the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Because the rig was located more than three nautical miles offshore, it may be considered an ocean-going vessel, which would not be subject to the same laws a closer rig would be.

The practical effect of having the DOHSA apply instead of bringing a typical wrongful death suit under state law is that the victims will be limited to economic damages and will not be able to recover damages for the manner in which their loved ones died or for the relationship they have lost. Essentially, the families of the victims could be limited to recovering damages for lost income and other expenses such as funeral costs.

Some families members of those lost on the rig explosion have already pleaded with Congress to amend the DOHSA. Last week, legislation was introduced that would allow negligence cases to be brought on behalf of victims regardless of whether they died on land or at sea.

Although the DOHSA was amended about 10 years ago to allow some families of airline passengers to recover damages after a crash at sea, the new legislation will likely face stiff opposition in Congress. Similar legislation was defeated last year after heavy lobbying from the cruise line industry.

Related Resource:

Will the Cruise Ship Industry Do BP's Dirty Work? (The Atlantic)

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