Mobil Oil Corporation v. Higginbotham

Decision Date05 June 1978
Docket NumberNo. 76-1726,76-1726
Citation436 U.S. 618,98 S.Ct. 2010,56 L.Ed.2d 581
PartiesMOBIL OIL CORPORATION, Petitioner, v. Frances Nell HIGGINBOTHAM, Administratrix of the Estate of Marshall K. Higginbotham, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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.

Carl J. Schumacher, Jr., New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

Jack C. Benjamin, New Orleans, La., for respondents.

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, dis greeing with the First Circuit, held 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 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 damages for loss of society. We granted certiorari limited to this issue. 434 U.S. 816, 98 S.Ct. 54, 54 L.Ed.2d 72.


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, 7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358. 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, 28 S.Ct. 133, 52 L.Ed. 264.

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

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 uncertainty 12 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, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 26 L.Ed.2d 339, 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 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, 90 S.Ct., at 1787.

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, 90 S.Ct., at 1792. A few years later, in Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573, 94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9, 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, 94 S.Ct., at 814-818. 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, 94 S.Ct., at 816. 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 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 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) than 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. 1975).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-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, supra, at 588-590, 94 S.Ct., at 816-817.

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 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 e ther 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.

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, 90 S.Ct., at 1785-1786. 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 difference between filling a gap left by Cong...

To continue reading

Request your trial
407 cases
  • Barger v. Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas
    • May 21, 1981
    ...has been satisfied. Higginbotham v. Mobil Oil Corp., 545 F.2d 422, 433 n. 13 (5th Cir. 1977), rev'd on other grounds, 436 U.S. 618, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581 (1978). Now we come to the heart of this case: whether the helicopter was a vessel within the meaning of the Jones Act and the ge......
  • Kennedy v. Carnival Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida
    • March 6, 2019
    ...common law remedy for wrongful death in territorial waters could include loss of society damages); Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 625, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581 (1978) ("The Death on the High Seas Act, however, announces Congress' considered judgment on such issues as th......
  • John Crane, Inc. v. Hardick
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court
    • March 2, 2012
    ...afforded no remedy for wrongful death in the absence of an applicable state or federal statute.” Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 620, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581 (1978) (citing The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. at 213–14, 7 S.Ct. 140). “Thereafter, suits arising out of maritime fata......
  • In re Holoholo
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Hawaii
    • April 13, 1981
    ...course of employment by his employer's negligence, no matter where the wrong takes place. Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 621 n.11, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 2012 n.11, 56 L.Ed.2d 581 (1978). In Parden v. Terminal Railway Co., supra, the United States Supreme Court held "that the State ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
20 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 97 No. 3, March 2022
    • March 1, 2022
    ...whether the statute 'speak[s] directly to [the] question' at issue." (alterations in original) (quoting Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 625 (243) FED. R. APP. P. 31 (c) (providing consequences for failure to file a brief). (244) Id. (245) See United States v. Swigart, 490 F.2......
  • And Not a Drop to Drink: Admiralty Law and the BP Well Blowout
    • United States
    • Louisiana Law Review No. 73-1, October 2012
    • July 1, 2012
    ...and OCS drilling operations test determines LHWCA compensation pursuant to OCSLA section 1333(b)); cf . Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 619 (1978) (reversing the Fifth Circuit ruling that survivors of deceased worker are entitled to general maritime law loss-of-society damage......
  • CHAPTER 15
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Zalma on Property and Casualty Insurance
    • Invalid date
    ...understanding is not a matter to which “Congress has spoken directly.” See Miles, supra, at 31 (citing Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 625 (1978)). Indeed, the Miles Court itself acknowledged that “[t]he Jones Act evinces no general hostility to recovery under maritime law,” ......
  • Interpreting Federal Statutes of Limitations
    • United States
    • Invalid date
    ...principle, the statute must 'speak directly' to the question addressed by the common law") (citing Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 625 (1978)). See also Milwaukee v. Illinois, 451 U.S. 304, 315 & n.8 (1981) (stating that Congress need not affirmatively proscribe use of the co......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT