Breaking Waves: The Ninth Circuit Returns to the Text to Decide DOHSA’s Applicability in Helman v. Alcoa Global Fasteners, Inc.

James W. Clement | Case Note

While operating 9.5 nautical miles off the coast of California, a United States Navy helicopter plunged into the Pacific Ocean. Three Navy crewmen died in the 2007 crash. Blaming the accident on the helicopter and its component parts, the personal representatives and successors in interest of the crewmen (collectively Appellants) brought wrongful death and general maritime claims in California state court. The manufacturers, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. (collectively Sikorsky) removed the case to the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

After removal, Sikorsky petitioned for judgment on the pleadings, and the remaining defendants moved to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Finding that the state and general maritime law claims for wrongful death were preempted by the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), a federal remedial statute for wrongful death at sea, the district court granted both motions to dismiss. As a case of first impression on interlocutory appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that (1) the appellants’ claims were preempted by federal law, and (2) DOHSA remained unaffected by a presidential proclamation extending the reach of the nation’s territorial waters from three to twelve miles offshore. Helman v. Alcoa Global Fasteners, Inc., 637 F.3d 986, 988, 993 (9th Cir. 2011), aff’g No. CV 09-1353 SVW, 2009 WL 2058541, 2009 AMC 1980 (C.D. Cal. June 16, 2009).