Offshore Logistics, Inc v. Tallentire

Citation477 U.S. 207,91 L.Ed.2d 174,106 S.Ct. 2485
Decision Date23 June 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-202,85-202
PartiesOFFSHORE LOGISTICS, INC., et al., Petitioners v. Beth A. TALLENTIRE et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents' husbands were killed when petitioner Air Logistic's helicopter crashed in the high seas 35 miles off the Louisiana coast while transporting the decedents from the offshore drilling platform where they worked to Louisiana. Respondents each filed a wrongful death action (later consolidated) in Federal District Court, raising claims under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), and Louisiana law. Ruling that DOHSA provides the exclusive remedy for death on the high seas, the District Court dismissed respondents' claims based on the Louisiana wrongful death statute. Petitioner Air Logistics having admitted liability, the trial was limited to the question of damages. Because DOHSA limits recovery to "fair and just compensation for . . . pecuniary loss," the court's awards to respondents did not include damages for nonpecuniary losses. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's denial of nonpecuniary benefits recoverable under the Louisiana wrongful death statute, holding that state law could apply of its own force by virtue of § 7 of DOHSA, which provides that "[t]he provisions of any State statute giving or regulating rights of action or remedies for death shall not be affected" by the Act. The court concluded, on the basis of § 7's legislative history, that the section was intended to preserve the applicability of state wrongful death statutes on the high seas, and that Louisiana had legislative jurisdiction to extend its wrongful death statute to remedy deaths on the high seas and in fact had intended its statute to have that effect.

Held: Neither OCSLA nor DOHSA requires or permits the application of the Louisiana wrongful death statute in this case so as to entitle respondents to recover nonpecuniary damages under that statute. Pp. 217-233.

(a) Because the fatalities in question did not arise from an accident in the area covered by OCSLA, i.e., "the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf, and artificial islands and fixed structures" erected thereon, but rather occurred on the high seas, DOHSA, which provides a maritime remedy for wrongful deaths "occurring on the high seas" plainly was intended to control. The character of the decedents as platform workers who had a special relationship with the shore community has no relevance to the resolution of the question of the application of OCSLA to this case. Pp. 217-220.

(b) The language of § 7 of DOHSA and its legislative history, as well as the congressional purposes underlying DOHSA, mandate that § 7 be read not as an endorsement of the application of state wrongful death statutes to the high seas, but rather as a jurisdictional saving clause ensuring that state courts have the right to entertain causes of action and provide wrongful death remedies both for accidents occurring on state territorial waters and, under DOHSA, for accidents occurring on the high seas. Viewed in this light, § 7 serves not to destroy the uniformity of wrongful death remedies on the high seas but to facilitate the efficient and just administration of those remedies. Pp. 220-232.

(c) Once it is determined that § 7 does not sanction the applicability of state wrongful death statutes to accidents on the high seas, it must be concluded that state wrongful death statutes are pre-empted by DOHSA where it applies. Pp. 232-233.

754 F.2d 1274 (CA5 1985), reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 233.

Keith A. Jones, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Charles Hanemann, Houma, La., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents' husbands were killed when petitioner Air Logistic's helicopter, in which the decedents were traveling, crashed into the high seas. The issue presented is whether the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 41 Stat. 537, 46 U.S.C. § 761 et seq., provides the exclusive remedy by which respondents may recover against petitioner for the wrongful death of their husbands, or whether they may also recover the measure of damages provided by the Louisiana wrongful death statute, La.Civ.Code Ann., Art. 2315 (West Supp.1986), applying either of its own force or as surrogate federal law under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), 67 Stat. 462, as amended, 43 U.S.C. § 1331 et seq.

I

The husbands of respondents Corrine Taylor and Beth Tallentire worked on drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. On August 6, 1980, respondents' husbands were killed while being transported in a helicopter owned and operated by petitioner Air Logistics (hereafter petitioner), a Division of Offshore Logistics, Inc., from a drilling platform to Houma, Louisiana. The crash occurred approximately 35 miles off the coast of Louisiana, well over the 3-mile limit that separates Louisiana's territorial waters from the high seas for purposes of DOHSA.

Respondents each filed wrongful death suits in United States District Court, raising claims under DOHSA, OCSLA, and the law of Louisiana. These actions were later consolidated in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Upon petitioner's pretrial motion for partial summary judgment, the District Court ruled that DOHSA provides the exclusive remedy for death on the high seas, and it therefore dismissed respondents' claims based upon the Louisiana wrongful death statute. Petitioner admitted liability and the trial was limited to the question of damages. Because DOHSA limits recovery to "fair and just compensation for . . . pecuniary loss," the District Court's awards to respondents did not include damages for nonpecuniary losses. 46 U.S.C. § 762.

Respondents appealed the District Court's dismissal of their OCSLA and state law wrongful death claims, contending that they were entitled to nonpecuniary damages under the Louisiana wrongful death statute. See La.Civ.Code Ann., Art. 2315(B) (West Supp.1986) (permitting recovery for both pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages, "includ[ing] loss of consortium, service, and society"). They argued that the Louisiana statute applied to this helicopter crash on the high seas, either of its own force by virtue of the saving provision in § 7 of DOHSA, 46 U.S.C. § 767, or as adopted federal law through OCSLA. See 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a)(2)(A). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the District Court's denial of benefits recoverable under Louisiana law, with one judge specially concurring and another judge dissenting. See 754 F.2d 1274 (CA5 1985).

The Court of Appeals first observed that even if OCSLA did apply to this action, OCSLA adopts state law as surrogate federal law only "[t]o the extent [the state laws] are . . . not inconsistent with . . . other Federal laws." 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a)(2)(A). Because the precedent of the Fifth Circuit held that DOHSA applies to a helicopter crash on the high seas, the court concluded that Louisiana law could not be applied through OCSLA as the Louisiana wrongful death scheme was inconsistent with DOHSA. Accordingly, the court turned to the question whether state law could apply of its own force by virtue of § 7 of DOHSA, which provides:

"The provisions of any State statute giving or regulating rights of action or remedies for death shall not be affected by this chapter. Nor shall this chapter apply to the Great Lakes or to any waters within the territorial limits of any State, or to any navigable waters in the Panama Canal Zone." 46 U.S.C. § 767.

After examining the legislative history of § 7, the Court of Appeals concluded that that section was intended to preserve the applicability of state wrongful death statutes on the high seas. It further held that Louisiana had legislative jurisdiction to extend its wrongful death statute to remedy deaths on the high seas and that Louisiana in fact intended its statute to have that effect. In reaching its result, the court acknowledged that the disunity that its decision would create was "profoundly unsettling," 754 F.2d, at 1284, but ultimately concluded that "[o]ur desire for a uniform, consistent, scheme of maritime death remedies cannot justify a refusal to follow" the perceived legislative will. Id., at 1288.

Judge Jolly filed a special concurrence, observing that although the court's result was compelled by § 7, it would create "significant problems in the field of maritime law because it defies reason, runs contrary to principles of the general precedent in the field, and creates all sorts of internal inconsistencies in the prosecution of cases dealing with death on the high seas." Id., at 1289. Judge Garza dissented, arguing that § 7 was intended to preserve state wrongful death actions only in territorial waters and echoing the view of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the application of state law to wrongful death actions arising on the high seas would be " 'as damaging to uniformity in wrongful death actions as it is illogical.' " Ibid. (quoting Nygaard v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc., 701 F.2d 77, 80 (CA9 1983)).

Because the Fifth Circuit's decision creates the potential for disunity in the administration of wrongful death remedies for causes of action arising from accidents on the high seas and is in conflict with the prevailing view in other courts that DOHSA pre-empts state law wrongful death statutes in the area of its operation, we granted certiorari. 474 U.S. 816, 106 S.Ct. 60, 88 L.Ed.2d 48 (1985). We now hold that neither OCSLA nor DOHSA requires or permits the...

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