In the appeal of a Florida federal district court's granting of summary judgment to a Department of Defense maintenance contractor arising from a fatal crash of an Air Force F-16 from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, an 11th Circuit panel affirmed and unanimously held that: (1) the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) governed the wrongful death action; (2) DOHSA provided the exclusive remedy and preempted all state law claims; and (3) the civilian maintenance contractor, PAE Worldwide Incorporated (“PAE”), was entitled to the protection of the government contractor defense related to maintenance performed at Tyndall Air Force Base. However, two panel members wrote a separate concurring opinion to explain that while they “agree that we must follow existing precedent to hold that DOHSA applies to (and thereby supplies the exclusive wrongful-death remedy for) any claim arising out of a death occurring on the high seas—even where, as here, the negligence alleged to have caused the death occurred on land—I do so holding my nose, as DOHSA's plain language is squarely to the contrary.”

DOHSA's applicable provision (46 U.S.C. Sect. 30302) states, in relevant part, that “[w]hen the death of an individual is caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas . . . the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible.” (emphasis added). The 11th Circuit found that despite the appellant's plain text argument that DOHSA should apply only for negligence occurring on the high seas, it was bound by well-settled U.S.  Supreme Court precedent and 11th Circuit precedent (while also noting the existence of “mounds” of nonbinding precedent) that construed DOHSA to confer admiralty jurisdiction over claims “arising out of airplane crashes on the high seas though the negligence alleged to have caused the crash occurred on land.”

In granting PAE's motion for partial summary judgment related to recoverable damages, the district court had held that DOHSA “provides the exclusive remedy for death on the high seas, preempts all other forms of wrongful death claims, and only permits recovery for pecuniary damages.” As the 11th Circuit observed, “DOHSA's applicability matters, among other reasons, because it limits a plaintiff's recovery to ‘compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained by the individuals for whose benefit the action is brought' and thereby forecloses recovery for emotional injury and punitive damages.” The trial court also held that because the state law claims were preempted under DOHSA, the plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial.

Having concluded that DOHSA supplied the exclusive remedy for appellant's damages claims, the 11th Circuit also affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment on liability, holding that the claims against PAE were barred by the government contractor defense's extension of sovereign immunity. For a civilian contractor who provides maintenance services under a government procurement contract, the applicable test in the 11th Circuit has three elements: “(1) the United States approved reasonably precise maintenance procedures; (2) [the contractor's] performance of the maintenance conformed to those procedures; and (3) [the contractor] warned the United States about the dangers in reliance on the procedures that were known to [the contractor] but not to the United States.” The parties did not dispute that the first and third elements of the test were satisfied in this case, so the only dispute was over the second element—whether the maintenance conformed to the Air Force's reasonably precise maintenance procedures. The Court concluded that based on the evidence presented by the parties, PAE's performance did not violate reasonably precise government maintenance procedures.

Bottom line: the law is well settled that DOHSA applies to all cases—including aviation-related cases—in which a death occurs on the high seas. LaCourse v PAE Worldwide Inc., No. 19-13833, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 36021 (11th Cir. Nov. 17, 2020).

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