Offshore helicopter crashes generally occur when transporting workers to an offshore oil rig. These types of crashes are surprisingly common – in fact, the risk is so high that the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that the risk of occupational fatality for offshore oil rig workers is seven times the risk for onshore workers. Offshore oil workers who survive a helicopter crash also face the disadvantage of being ineligible for Worker’s Compensation. This unfortunate reality renders the necessity of filing a claim under state or federal personal injury law particularly acute.
The Legal Jungle
Legal claims arising from offshore helicopter crashes, whether or not involving an oil worker, can implicate a bewildering array of laws, including
- Admiralty/maritime law
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations
- State wrongful death law (filed relatives or the estate executor of the deceased)
- State personal injury law
The Jones Act
The Jones Act is a federal maritime/admiralty law that provides legal remedies to “seamen” who are injured while working within U.S. territorial waters. If the “seaman” is killed, close relatives may file a wrongful death claim under the Jones Act. Although strictly speaking, oil rig workers are not seamen, personal injury and wrongful death claims by oil rig workers can still be resolved under the Jones Act. Jones Act claims are generally somewhat easier to win than state law claims because of differences in the burden of proof; however, available damages can be more limited under the Jones Act than under state law.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)
In contrast with the Jones Act, DOHSA is designed to compensate family members whose loved one died more than 12 nautical miles from shore (outside U.S. territorial waters). DOHSA is unavailable to surviving oil rig workers who wish to pursue personal injury claims, and wrongful death damages are more limited under DOHSA than under state law.
State Law Claims and FAA Regulations
The first question that arises when filing a state law claim is whether the law of the state in which the lawsuit is filed even applies to the case — the Jones Act or DOHSA may apply instead. Even if state law applies, if the victim died and the plaintiff and the victim are from different states, a question may arise as to which state’s law applies.
FAA regulations often come into play, because if the plaintiff can show that the helicopter crash was caused by a regulatory violation, it is relatively easy to establish that the pilot, maintenance crew or other flight personnel were negligent. Since FAA regulations are considered minimum standards, however, you can still establish negligence even if no FAA regulations were violated.
The aftermath of a tragic offshore helicopter crash is no time to represent yourself, either in court or at the settlement table. In the complex legal environment of an offshore helicopter crash claim, the services of a skilled and experienced aviation accident lawyer is almost always required to achieve a fair result.