When A Helicopter Hits An Offshore Oil Platform And Then Crashes Into The Ocean

A helicopter carrying workers to an oil rig attempts to land on the rig’s platform. The helicopter hits something on the rig, spins out of control, and crashes into the sea. All the helicopter's occupants are killed.Helicopter Approaching Oil Rig Platform 

Sadly, with more than 5000 oil rigs operating off the US shores, oil rig-related helicopter crashes are a relatively common occurrence.

Even though the accidents are almost always the result of someone’s negligence, it's often unclear what compensation, if any, the victims’ families will be entitled to.  That's because there is little agreement as to what law applies to helicopter accidents on oil rigs. 

Since there is no governing "helicopter accident law," some courts look to the law of admiralty.  Reasoning that the deaths occur offshore, they apply the Death on the High Seas Act. The Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, generally allows the victims' families “pecuniary damages” only.  Pecuniary damages include lost wages and funeral expenses. Except in certain circumstances, no compensation is allowed for the loss of the victim's care, comfort and emotional support, or his pre-impact pain and suffering. When DOHSA applies, it can mean the family members get no compensation at all.

Most oil rigs are located on the "outer continental shelf." Because of that, some courts have ruled that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs. Unlike DOHSA, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ("OCSLA") entitles the victims' families to all the damages available under the wrongful death statute of the nearby state. That usually includes compensation for the loss of the victim's care, comfort and affection.

In Alleman v. Omni Energy Services Corp, a helicopter pilot landed on an oil platform, then tried to lift off and reposition the helicopter to make it easier for the passengers to exit.  When he did, the helicopter's main rotors struck a boat landing that had been improperly stored near the helipad.  The helicopter spun across the pad, momentarily came to rest on the edge of the pad, and then fell over the side of the rig and into the Gulf of Mexico below.  One passenger died.

The court ruled ruled that OSCLA applied, not the more restrictive DOHSA.

This accident "actually occurred" on the oil platform itself and OSCLA therefore applies. It does not impact our analysis that Hollier fell into the sea after the accident occurred on the platform. . . .Congress did not intend . . . that these island-platforms be within admiralty’s jurisdiction. 

Texas lawyer Ryan Hackney  questions the court's reasoning:

The [opinion] takes it as self-evident that the accident “actually occurred” when the helicopter’s tail rotor made impact with the boat landing on the platform. From Hollier's perspective, however, the more significant impact was surely the one when his helicopter crashed into the unforgiving water of the Gulf of Mexico. To put it bluntly, bumping your tail rotor might ruin your day, but crashing your helicopter into the high seas will ruin your whole week.

It was the main rotor that struck the landing, not the tail rotor.  But, putting that aside, Hackney's  thorough analysis of the Alleman opinion and the law bearing on helicopter crashes on oil rigs is excellent and worth a read for anyone wrestling with the topic.

As Hackney's analysis points out, the law that applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs is confused.  In fact, there is sufficient disagreement among the courts concerning OCSLA's application that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear argument in October in Pacific Operator Offshore v. Valladolid.  The case doesn't involve a helicopter crash.  But it will tee up issues of when OCSLA applies to accidents injuring rig workers and when it does not.  

Death on the High Seas Act: Federal Court Questions the Powers of the President

The Death on the High Seas Act applies to certain airplane and helicopter crashes as well as to shipwrecks.  The Act limits the claims that family members can bring. For example, in most cases the Death on the High Seas Act does not allow a parent to sueDeath on the High Seas Act for the loss of a child.  And though a wife can sue for the death of her husband, she can recover only lost financial support.  No compensation is allowed for the loss of the husband's love and affection.

Everyone agrees that DOHSA never applies to crashes within 3 miles from the US shoreline, and that it always applies to certain crashes more than 12 miles from shore.  The issue is whether it applies to crashes between 3 miles and 12 miles from shore. 

That question came up after the TWA Flight 800 disaster, because the Boeing 747 crashed about 8 miles from shore. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the "High Seas" means "international waters."  So DOHSA applies to crashes between 3 and 12 miles from shore only if the particular waters are "international." 

But just before the TWA Flight 800 accident, President Reagan proclaimed that all waters within 12 miles from a US shoreline are US waters, not international waters.  The court ruled that the presidential proclamation made the analysis easy.  The Death on the High Seas Act applies only to crashes beyond 12 miles from shore, and so did not prevent the families of Flight 800 from suing.

Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit disagreed.  A Marine helicopter crashed 9.5 miles from the shore of Catalina Island, killing three servicemen.  The familes sued Sikorsky, the helicopter's manufacturer, as well as those who built some of the helicopter's component parts.  But the court ruled that because the crash happened more than three miles from shore, DOHSA applied, and their lawsuit should be dimissed. 

We conclude that DOHSA applies to all waters beyond three nautical miles from United States shores.  The helicopter crash in this case is governed by DOHSA's remedial scheme."

As for the effect of President Reagan's proclamation?

Though we do not decide the matter, we remain doubtful that the President would have the authority to alter the remedial scheme set forth in DOHSA through a proclamation."

The case is Helman v. Alcoa Global Fasteners. Because the two federal courts have now reached opposite conclusions, the matter might be headed to the US Supreme Court.  That will be interesting.  Dissenting from the Second Circuit's opinion in the TWA Flight 800 case was then-Judge Sotomayor who now, of course, sits on the Supreme Court. 

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) and Aviation Accidents

The Death on the High Seas Act was originally intended to apply to shipwrecks and other shipping accidents in international waters.  Though a law of admiralty, DOHSHigh Seas and Air France Flight 447A's wording is broad enough to cover any accident, not just shipping accidents. Therefore, it applies with equal force to aviation accidents occurring on the high seas.

The "high seas" are those international waters more than 12 nautical miles from the shore of the United States or one of its islands.  After an aviation accident, it doesn't matter whether the passenger's family sues the responsible airline under the Warsaw or Montreal conventions, a mechanic for negligence, or a manufacturer for a defectively designed product. If the accident happened on or over the "high seas," those responsible for the

death are entitled to the protections of the DOHSA. 

 Some of DOHSA's provisions:

  • Only a representative appointed by the court may sue on the family's behalf.  Family members may not sue individually.
  • The only family members who are entitled to compensation from the suit are the passenger's "wife, husband, parent, child, or dependent relative."  Under DOHSA, some of those who would normally be entitled to compensation may be left out.
  • Family members are not entitled to the usual damages for wrongful death.  Rather, they are entitled to their "pecuniary" damages only.  Pecuniary damages include lost wages and other monetary support, and funeral expenses. No compensation is allowed for the loss of care comfort and emotional support, or the passenger's pre-impact pain and suffering. 

By way of example, let's say that a supplier knowingly sold "bogus" aircraft parts -- parts that were not suitable for installation in an aircraft.  As a result, the aircraft crashed while flying off shore and a 16 year-old passenger was killed.  In that case, the supplier would be required to compensate the parents for the funeral expenses only. DOHSA provides the supplier a complete defense to any other claim for compensation, including punitive damages.

Recognizing the unfairness of this aspect of DOHSA, Congress amended the law in 2000.  Now the "pecuniary loss" limitation doesn't apply in commercial aviation cases.  Instead, if the crash was a commercial aircraft, the spouse, parent, or dependent relative may be compensated for not just their pecuniary loss but also for the loss of the passenger's "care, comfort and companionship."

Unfortunately, however, the DOHSA "pecuniary loss" limitation still applies to general aviation airplanes and helicopters not operated for revenue purposes.  It also applies to public-use aircraft, and to military aircraft lost at sea. 

DOSHA was asserted as a defense in the litigation following the crashes of TWA Flight 800, EgyptAir Flight 990, and Alaska Airlines Flight 261, among others.  It will certainly be an issue in the litigation arising from the loss of Air France Flight 447