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.
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.