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Land Based Commuter Seamen Are Entitled To Maintenance And Cure And Those Benefits May Not Be Denied Because of Receipt of Social Security Disability Payments

The United States District Court for the Third Circuit has ruled that land based commuter seamen, who eat and sleep ashore, have the same right to maintenance and cure as all other seamen. See Delaware River & Bay Authority v. Kopacz,2009 WL 3064708 (2009). The ruling explicitly stated that, in the Third Circuit, commuter seamen are entitled to maintenance benefits. The decision further held that the receipt of Social Security disability payments does not terminate the right to maintenance and that payments under a long term disability policy did not satisfy the employer’s maintenance obligation.

In the Delaware River Bay Authority case, the seaman was covered under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement he was to receive full wages for 90 days following his injury and 60% of his wages under a long term disability policy following a lapse of 90 days. The collective bargaining agreement made no mention of the injured seaman’s right to maintenance and cure. Upon learning of the seaman’s receipt of Social Security disability payments, his employer demanded repayment of overlapping long term disability payments.

When seamen receive long term disability payments under an insurance policy funded by his employer, the question that must be resolved is, are these payments part of the seaman’s wage package. Where the long term disability payments may be characterized as part of the seaman’s wages, they will be deemed separate and distinct from the owner’s obligation to pay maintenance under the general maritime law. The absence of a contractual clause indicating the long term disability payments are in lieu of maintenance, those payments should not bar a seaman’s right to maintenance.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals further held that receipt of Social Security disability payments by an injured seaman did not terminate the seaman’s rights to maintenance. The Court noted the significant differences in qualifications for Social Security payments versus maintenance payments. Social Security disability payments are awarded 12 months after an injury or illness; they are not restricted or based upon the need for room and board. Social Security disability payments are not the equivalent of maintenance payments. Accordingly, distinguishing the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Moran Towing & Transportation Co. v. Lombass, 58 F.3d 24 ( 1995) [receipt of medicare payments terminates obligation to pay cure], the Third Circuit unequivocally rejected the argument that Social Security disability benefits terminate the right to maintenance and cure.

Other Courts in past cases have also rejected arguments that Social Security disability payments terminate the right to maintenance. Some of those Courts have based their reasoning on the fact that employees contribute to the Social Security system and that Social Security disability payments may be a collateral source which the employer cannot use to bar a seaman’s right to basic maintenance benefits.