Helicopter Accident Results In Death Of Marines, DOHSA Lawsuit
You don’t have to be in a boat to file a lawsuit under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). In fact, the families of three service members who were killed during a Marine training exercise filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter manufacturer.
Servicemembers are prohibited from filing negligence lawsuits against the U.S. military unless they are injured by medical malpractice. However, any individual can file a lawsuit against a third-party company that manufactures a device that leads to injury. In this case, the families are blaming the helicopter for the death of their loved ones.
Nonetheless, the military contractors can make special arguments against tort claims. In this case, the contractor claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction to review the matter because it fell under the political question doctrine requiring a judicial review of military actions. The court agreed with the defense and dismissed the lawsuit. The families appealed and the decision was upheld. However, the Texas Supreme Court has granted their petition to review the matter and will take up the case.
What is “the political question”?
Conservative states believe in a very literal interpretation of the separation of powers. That means that the judicial branch of government is not authorized to countermand decisions that are allotted to other branches via the Constitution. Before a judge can review the case, a determination must be made as to whether or not the judge has the power to countermand the decision. If the judge finds the actions illegal, then the judge can countermand the decision. If the judge does not, then they have no authority to countermand the decision. This prevents what you call “activist judges” from interfering with the legislative process.
What about the conduct of a private contractor?
In this case, the contractor was faulted for providing faulty maintenance to the helicopter that crashed. The question is: Does the court have the authority to decide when military maintenance schedules should be performed? Even if they don’t, a contractor who shirks its duty to the military can and will be held accountable regardless of whether or not military decisions were involved. Right now, 3M is facing a slew of deafness lawsuits related to their defective earplugs.
Whether or not “the political question” can be applied to this case thus rests on a question of how literally you interpret the law. If you want to say that the judicial branch has no power to review negligence claims related to third-party contractors, then you’re placing our military men and women in danger without the right to recover restitution. If you want to say that the judicial branch has the power to review maintenance schedules, then it could give judicial authority over the military to set standards for maintenance. The latter doesn’t sound so bad considering the consequences.
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