Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire

PETITIONER: Offshore Logistics, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Tallentire
LOCATION: Southhampton County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 85-202
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 477 US 207 (1986)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1986
DECIDED: Jun 23, 1986

ADVOCATES:
Charles Hanemann - on behalf of the Respondents
Keith A. Jones - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1986 in Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Offshore Logistics, Incorporated v. Tallentire.

Mr. Jones, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Keith A. Jones:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case arises from the crash of a helicopter on the high seas.

The crash occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 35 miles from land.

All persons on board were killed.

The operator of the helicopter, Offshore Logistics, conceded in the District Court that it is liable for damages under the Federal Death on the High Seas Act, which is known by its acronym DOHSA.

That statute provides for the recovery of pecuniary damages, but it does not allow the award of nonpecuniary or sentimental damages.

The case is here because the Plaintiffs contend and the Court of Appeals held that Offshore Logistics additionally is liable for sentimental damages under state law.

The theory of the Plaintiffs and that of the Court of Appeals is that state law may be invoked and applied as a means of supplementing DOHSA and enlarging the recoveries for wrongful death on the high seas.

We disagree.

Our position is that DOHSA is exclusive, that the availability of a uniform maritime rule of recovery makes the parallel of supplemental enforcement of state law both unnecessary and inappropriate.

The Court of Appeals rejected our position because, it held, that enforcement of state law is required by what it called the clear mandate of Section 7 of DOHSA.

That holding defines the core issue in this case, that is, whether Section 7 actually does mandate enforcement of state law on the high seas.

We submit that Plaintiffs cannot prevail in this case unless Section 7 affirmatively directs federal admiralty courts to enforce state wrongful death statutes on the high seas.

We further submit that Section 7 issues no such directive.

Before I turn to the construction of Section 7, let me begin by assuming that for purposes of argument that Section 7 is merely neutral, that it neither prohibits nor requires the enforcement of state law on the high seas.

In this event, the proper role of state law will be left for judicial determination in accordance with the governing principles of admiralty, and there can be no serious question about the outcome.

Federal courts would not be required to enforce state law on the high seas, and they would not do so.

The courts would not be required to enforce state law because admiralty is a federal common law jurisdiction in which state law does not operate of its own force.

This Court has refused to apply state law even in cases arising on the territorial waters and involving issues on which Congress has not spoken.

It follows a fortiori that admiralty courts have no obligation to enforce state law in cases arising not in the territorial waters but on the high seas and involving issues on which Congress already has spoken by providing a uniform maritime rule.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Jones, how far in towards the shore does the DOHSA come?

Is it a what, a marine league?

Keith A. Jones:

One marine league, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, how far is that?

Keith A. Jones:

I understand that's just a little bit more than three geographic miles.

I think it is the equivalent of three nautical miles.

I think the purpose of DOHSA was to define the territorial boundary of the United States or to conform with that boundary.

Not only would federal admiralty courts not be required to enforce state law in those circumstances, it is clear that they would not do so.

The purpose of the constitutional framers in conferring admiralty jurisdiction on the federal courts was to ensure the preservation and development of a coherent and uniform body of maritime law.