Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham-confusion Returns to Maritime Wrongful Death Actions

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 2 No. 03
Publication year1979


Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham-Confusion Returns To Maritime Wrongful Death Actions

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,(fn1) seeking recovery under general maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA),(fn2) and the Jones Act.(fn3) The federal district court found Mobil Oil Corporation, the owner and operator of the helicopter, negligent.(fn4) In awarding damages the district court limited recovery to pecuniary losses, holding that a pecuniary loss limitation applied regardless of the theory of recovery.(fn5) Specifically, the court denied plaintiffs recovery for loss of society damages.(fn6) 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.(fn7) 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,(fn8) the Supreme Court granted certiorari(fn9) and, reversing the court of appeals, held in Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham(fn10) 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.(fn11)

Consequently, DOHSA now provides the exclusive remedy for wrongful deaths occurring on the high seas.(fn12) By so holding, however, the Court ignored the legislative history of DOHSA, which does not mandate this result.(fn13) 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.(fn14) The Court's decision, therefore, retreats from the modern trend toward fashioning a uniform cause of action and remedy for maritime wrongful deaths and creates further confusion in maritime law.(fn15)

Prior to 1970, general maritime law, while allowing recovery for injuries, recognized no action for wrongful death absent legislation specifically authorizing such recovery.(fn16) Although all the states had wrongful death statutes,(fn17) territorial limitations often prevented the statutes from covering deaths on the high seas.(fn18) Also, because of the unique status of seamen,(fn19) the state statutes were often unavailable to them.(fn20) Thus, to supplement state statutes Congress in 1920 enacted the Jones Act, which provided protection for seamen,(fn21) and DOHSA, which created a cause of action for wrongful death on the high seas but explicitly left state statutes to govern in state territorial waters.(fn22) After 1920, then, the beneficiary of the victim of a maritime wrongful death had three possible theories of recovery as a substitute for general maritime law: DOHSA, the Jones Act, and state wrongful death statutes.

Between 1920 and 1970, however, anomalies developed because of the territorial and statutory limitations of these three means of recovery.(fn23) The anomalies stem from the statutes' failures to provide adequate remedies for the doctrine of unseaworthiness, which predicates liability on the breach of a shipowner's obligation to provide a ship reasonably able to perform its intended journeys.(fn24) First, if a Jones Act seaman was injured in territorial waters because of an unseaworthy vessel, he could recover under general maritime law.(fn25) But if the seaman died in territorial waters, his beneficiary was denied any recovery under all three statutory theories.(fn26) Second, a breach of the unseaworthiness doctrine on the high seas produced liability under DOHSA, but an identical breach produced no liability within territorial waters, unless the victim was a longshoreman covered by a state statute encompassing unseaworthiness.(fn27) Finally, a Jones Act seaman had no cause of action for an unseaworthiness-caused death in territorial waters, but a longshoreman, killed in the same accident, would have a cause of action if the state statute encompassed unseaworthiness.(fn28)

In 1970, in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc. ,(fn29) the Supreme Court expressly sought to eliminate these anomalies.(fn30)Moragne involved the death of a longshoreman killed in Florida territorial waters. Because general maritime law allowed no cause of action for wrongful death and the Florida wrongful death statute did not encompass unseaworthiness, the longshoreman's widow had no wrongful death cause of action for unseaworthiness.(fn31) The Court in Moragne, however, created an action for wrongful death under general maritime law.(fn32) By creating this action Moragne sought "to supplant the present disarray in this area with a rule both simpler and more just."(fn33) Thus, although the death in Moragne occurred in territorial waters, the Court's desire to eliminate anomalies partly based on DOHSA's territorial limitation suggests that this new cause of action extended to wrongful deaths on the high seas despite DOHSA.(fn34) The Court, however, left to future litigation the precise limits of the newly created cause of action, suggesting that lower courts look to both DOHSA and state statutes for "persuasive analogy."(fn35)

Four years later in Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet(fn36) the Court gave even clearer indications of abandoning the territorial waters/high seas distinction by analogizing to state statutes rather than DOHSA. The issue involved in Gaudet was whether the widow of a longshoreman killed in Louisiana territorial waters could maintain a Moragne wrongful death action even though her husband had recovered for his injuries prior to his death. The Court allowed such an action and then identified the particular damages recoverable in a Moragne wrongful death action.(fn37) In allowing recovery for loss of society damages, the Court rejected applying DOHSA's pecuniary loss limitation, relying instead on the fact that a majority of state statutes allowed recovery of such damages.(fn38) Justice Brennan, writing for the Court, recognized the decision permitted recovery of damages not recoverable under DOHSA but noted that Congress traditionally has allowed the courts to determine the rules of admiralty law,(fn39) and that the humanitarian policy of admiralty law "compelled" allowing recovery of loss of society damages.(fn40) Justice Powell in his dissent also noted that "the Court's holding that loss of society may be recovered is a clear example of the majority's repudiation of the congressional purpose in DOHSA and the Jones Act."(fn41) Thus, although the death in Gaudet occurred in territorial waters, neither the majority nor dissenting opinions indicate any intent to limit the holding to territorial waters; indeed, the fact that both opinions recognize the holding deviates from DOHSA's standard suggests just the opposite.(fn42) Implicitly, then, Gaudet's loss of society damages were recoverable on the high seas under a Moragne wrongful death action despite DOHSA's pecuniary loss limitation.

Higginbotham, however, read Gaudet narrowly, limiting Gaudet to territorial waters.(fn43) Thus, the DOHSA pecuniary loss standard applies to all actions for wrongful deaths on the high seas, while Gaudet's nonpecuniary loss standard applies to territorial waters. In refusing to supplement DOHSA with Gaudet, Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, concluded that the Court...

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