By paul motter
Two obscure maritime laws have come under scrutiny since the BP Oil Rig disaster. First is the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), second is the Jones Act. Both laws were enacted in 1920, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
The Death on the High Seas Act limits the liability of a "carrier" operating in international waters (whether it is a ship, jet or oil rig) in the case of death due to negligence. It says the deceased worker's dependents are entitled to compensation equal to what he would have earned over his lifetime in the same job.
DOHSA critics say this is unfair, that if a person dies "in the line of duty" the family should be entitled to pain and suffering, alienation of affection and punitive damages.
Now, if a soldier or a policeman is killed in the line of duty his family is not entitled to sue the government for anything. Why? Because the people knew the dangers when they took the job and the amount of family compensation is pre-determined by law. Without these limits these jobs could not exist.
However, it is extremely important that we warn you, as cruise ship passengers, that the Death on the High Seas Act also applies to you. Should you be killed while cruising on a cruise ship, by some highly extraordinary set of circumstances, the amount for which your family can sue the cruise line has the same limitations. This is yet another reason to recommend travel insurance to cruisers for anywhere from one to twenty million dollars in the case of accidental death.
The Jones Act is a law that I never expected to see in national headlines. It limits the right to conduct business in U.S. territorial waters to vessels that were built in the U.S., are currently flagged in the U.S. and only employ legal United States residents as crewmembers.
Cruise ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean and other major cruise lines are not U.S.-flagged and so they are limited by the Jones Act.
Many people are now calling on President Obama to suspend the Jones Act so non-U.S.-flagged ships can work in our territorial waters cleaning up the oil spill. President Bush suspended it within two weeks of the Katrina Hurricane crisis, for example. But Obama has yet to give clearance to some 20 foreign nations who are ready to assist in the cleanup.
Apparently, the Dutch have ships with vacuum technology that could clean up the oil spill about five times faster than any U.S.-flagged technology. To be clear, most are not volunteering their efforts, they expect to be paid.
But here is one context Mother Jones and many other pundits have missed; Repealing the Jones Act now would have an immediate benefit to the oil spill cleanup. But for the DOHSA; ex post facto law (the application of a new law to an instance that occurred before the law was changed) is expressly forbidden by Article One of the Constitution. Therefore, repealing the DOHSA wouldn't help the BP widows in any way.
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