436 U.S. 618 (1978), 76-1726, Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham

Docket Nº:No. 76-1726
Citation:436 U.S. 618, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581
Party Name:Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham
Case Date:June 05, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 618

436 U.S. 618 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581

Mobil Oil Corp.



No. 76-1726

United States Supreme Court

June 5, 1978

Argued January 10, 11, 1978




In an action for wrongful death on the high seas, the measure of damages is governed by the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C. § 762, which limits a decedent's survivors' recovery to their "pecuniary loss," and hence the survivors are not entitled to recover additional damages under general maritime law for "loss of society." Pp. 620-626.

545 F.2d 422, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 626. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves death on the high seas. The question is whether, in addition to the damages authorized by federal statute, a decedent's survivors may also recover damages under general maritime law. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, disagreeing with the First Circuit, held

Page 619

that survivors may recover for their "loss of society," as well as for their pecuniary loss.1 We reverse.

Petitioner used a helicopter in connection with its oil drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles from the Louisiana shore. On August 15, 1967, the helicopter crashed outside Louisiana's territorial waters, killing the pilot and three passengers. In a suit brought by the passengers' widows, in their representative capacities, the District Court accepted admiralty jurisdiction [98 S.Ct. 2012]2 and found that the deaths were caused by petitioner's negligence. The court awarded damages equal to the pecuniary losses suffered by the families of two passengers.3 Although the court valued the two families' loss of society at $100,000 and $155,000, it held that the law did not authorize recovery for this loss.4 The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiffs were entitled to claim

Page 620

damages for loss of society. We granted certiorari limited to this issue. 434 U.S. 816.


In 1877, the steamer Harrisburg collided with a schooner in Massachusetts coastal waters. The schooner sank, and its first officer drowned. Some five years later, his widow brought a wrongful death action against the Harrisburg. This Court held that admiralty afforded no remedy for wrongful death in the absence of an applicable state or federal statute. The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199. Thereafter, suits arising out of maritime fatalities were founded by necessity on state wrongful death statutes. See, e.g., The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398.

In 1920, Congress repudiated the rule of The Harrisburg for maritime deaths occurring beyond the territorial waters of any State. It passed the Death on the High Seas Act (hereinafter sometimes DOHSA)5 creating a remedy in admiralty for wrongful deaths more than three miles from shore. This Act limits the class of beneficiaries to the decedent's "wife, husband, parent, child, or dependent relative,"6 establishes a two-year period of limitations,7 allows suits filed by the victim to continue as wrongful death actions if the victim dies of his injuries while suit is pending,8 and provides that contributory negligence will not bar recovery.9 With respect to damages, the statute declares:

The recovery . . . shall be a fair and just compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained by the persons for whose benefit the suit is brought. . . .10

Page 621

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.11 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 uncertainty12 and incongruity.13 The reasoning of The Harrisburg, which was dubious, at best, in 1886,14 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, 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

Page 622

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.

In Moragne, the Court left various subsidiary questions concerning the nonstatutory death remedy -- such as the schedule of beneficiaries and the limitations period -- for "further sifting through the lower courts in future litigation." Id. at 408. A few years later, in Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573, the Court confronted some of these questions. Among the issues addressed in Gaudet was the measure of survivors' damages.15 The Court held that awards could include compensation for loss of support and services, for funeral expenses, and for loss of society, but not for mental anguish or grief. Id. at 583-591. The Court recognized that DOHSA, which compensates only for pecuniary losses, did not allow awards for loss of society. But the accident in Gaudet, like that in Moragne, took place in territorial waters, where DOHSA does not apply. The Court chose not to adopt DOHSA's pecuniary loss standard; instead, it followed the "clear majority of States" and "the humanitarian policy of the maritime law," both of which favored recovery for loss of society. 414 U.S. at 587-588. In sum, the Court made a policy determination in Gaudet which differed from the choice made by Congress when it enacted the Death on the High Seas Act.


The Gaudet opinion was broadly written. It did not state that the place where death occurred had an influence on its

Page 623

analysis. Gaudet may be read, as it has been, to replace entirely the Death on the High Seas Act.16 Its holding, however, applies only to coastal waters. We therefore must now [98 S.Ct. 2014] decide which measure of damages to apply in a death action arising on the high seas -- the rule chosen by Congress in 1920 or the rule chosen by this Court in Gaudet.

As the divergence of views among the States discloses, there are valid arguments both for and against allowing recovery for loss of society. Courts denying recovery cite two reasons: (1) that the loss is "not capable of measurement by any material or pecuniary standard," and (2) that an award for the loss "would obviously include elements of passion, sympathy and similar matters of improper character." 1 S. Speiser, Recovery for Wrongful Death § 3:49 (2d ed. 174).17 Courts allowing the award counter: (1) that the loss is real, however intangible it may be, and (2) that problems of measurement should not justify denying all relief. See generally Sea-Lard Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, supra at 588-590.

In this case, however, we need not pause to evaluate the opposing policy arguments. Congress has struck the balance for us. It has limited survivors to recovery of their pecuniary losses. Respondents argue that Congress does not have the

Page 624

last word on this issue that admiralty courts have traditionally undertaken to supplement maritime statutes and that such a step is necessary in this case to preserve the uniformity of maritime law. Neither argument is decisive.

We recognize today, as we did in Moragne, the value of uniformity, but a ruling that DOHSA governs wrongful death recoveries on the high seas poses only a minor threat to the uniformity of maritime law.18 Damages aside, none of the issues on which DOHSA is explicit have been settled to the contrary by this Court in either Moragne or Gaudet. Nor are other disparities likely to develop. As Moragne itself implied,19 DOHSA should be the courts' primary guide as they refine the nonstatutory death remedy, both because of the interest in uniformity and because Congress' considered judgment has great force in its own right. It is true that the measure of damages in coastal waters will differ from that on the high seas, but even if this difference proves significant,20 a desire for uniformity cannot override the statute.

Page 625

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. See nn. 6-10, supra. The Act does not address every issue of wrongful death law, see, e.g., n. 15, supra, 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.

In Moragne, the Court recognized a wrongful death remedy that supplements federal statutory remedies. But that holding depended on our conclusion that Congress withheld a statutory remedy in coastal waters in order to encourage and preserve supplemental remedies. 398 U.S. at 397-398. Congress did not limit DOHSA beneficiaries to recovery of their pecuniary losses in order to encourage the creation of nonpecuniary supplements. See generally Barbe v. Drummond, 507 F.2d 794, 801 n. 10 (CA1 1974); Wilson v. Transocean Airlines, 121 F.Supp. 85 (ND Cal.1954). There is a basic...

To continue reading