Howard Hall


In 1967, a helicopter carrying three passengers and a pilot returning from an offshore drilling platform crashed into the Gulf of Mexico beyond Louisiana's territorial waters, killing all aboard. The families of the decedents instituted a wrongful death suit in admiralty, seeking recovery under general maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), and the Jones Act. The federal district court found Mobil Oil Corporation, the owner and operator of the helicopter, negligent. In awarding damages the district court limited recovery to pecuniary losses, holding that a pecuniary loss limitation applied regardless of the theory of recovery. Specifically, the court denied plaintiffs recovery for loss of society damages. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that under recent Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit decisions, beneficiaries of a decedent wrongfully killed on the high seas could recover loss of society damages under general maritime law despite the pecuniary loss limitation of DOHSA. Because of conflicting decisions in the circuit courts of appeals regarding the precise limits of the cause of action and remedies for wrongful death under general maritime law, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and, reversing the court of appeals, held in Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham that nonpecuniary damages could not supplement DOHSA's pecuniary loss limitation; thus, the Court reinstated the district court's holding and denied recovery for loss of society damages. Consequently, DOHSA now provides the exclusive remedy for wrongful deaths occurring on the high seas. By so holding, however, the Court ignored the legislative history of DOHSA, which does not mandate this result. Moreover, Higginbotham not only restores various anomalies to maritime wrongful death actions that earlier decisions sought to eliminate, but also contravenes the humane policies of admiralty law. The Court's decision, therefore, retreats from the modem trend toward fashioning a uniform cause of action and remedy for maritime wrongful deaths and creates further confusion in maritime law.