Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner brought a wrongful death claim on behalf of her dead husband. Previous case law had determined that maritime law does not afford a cause of action for wrongful death. The United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) took the case to determine if the previous case law was still applicable.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Supreme Court overturns it’s previous holding in The Harrisburg and allows for a wrongful death action in maritime law.
Issue. Should the Supreme Court continue to apply the holding of The Harrisburg, that maritime law does not afford a cause of action for wrongful death?
Held. No. Judgment reversed and remanded.
* The holding of The Harrisburg has little justification except in primitive legal history. The historical reason for the rule was the felony-merger doctrine, where in England civil recovery was not allowed in felony cases because the tort and felony merged as an offense against the Crown. This rule never existed in America, but the American courts adopted the common law rule that wrongful death actions were not actionable.
* Legislatures both here and in England began to show disapproval for the rule, with every State here eventually enacting wrongful-death statutes. These statutes make it clear that there is no public policy against allowing recovery for wrongful deaths. Based on these facts, this Court overrules the holding in The Harrisburg. The law applied in personal-injury cases will govern questions that arise in death cases. This Court will not determine whether the beneficiaries are entitled to recover at this time.
Discussion. At common law, a personal cause of action in tort did not survive the death of its possessor. However, this applied only to a victim’s own personal claims and did not include a dependant’s injuries that he suffered from the victim’s death.