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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
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Federal Law Pre-empts Suit Over Chopper Crash

(CN) - A federal judge properly dismissed claims from a wrongful death suit filed by the families of three Navy crewmen killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of California's Catalina Island, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday, finding that the crash falls under a federal law governing deaths on the high seas.

Adam Dyer, Christopher Will and Cory Helman were killed in 2007 after their helicopter went down about 9.5 nautical miles off the coast of Catalina Island, about 22 miles from Long Beach. The crewmen had been performing training exercises from the USS Bonhomme Richard when the helicopter lost control and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, according to the ruling.

The crewmen's survivors sued Alcoa Global Fasteners, Pacific Scientific, HiShear, Sikorsky Aircraft, Sikorsky Support Services, Parker-Hannifin and General Electric in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The complaint included causes of action for wrongful death, product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.

After Sikorsky transferred the families' complaint from Los Angeles Superior Court to District Court, a federal judge dismissed certain claims. The federal appeals panel in Pasadena upheld that dismissal, finding that the federal Death on the High Seas Act preempted the action because the accident occurred more than 3 nautical miles from the U.S. shore.

Though the parties disagreed whether the federal law applies to the area between 3 and 12 nautical miles off the coast, the three-judge panel found that statute was clear on the issue.

"The text of DOHSA ... explicitly places its boundary at three nautical miles from United States shores," Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the panel, using the acronym for the Death on the High Seas Act. "Congressional action amending DOHSA also reveals Congress's continuing understanding that DOHSA applies to the area between three and twelve nautical miles from shore, even after the extension of U.S. territorial waters. Therefore, 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."

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