Social Security Disability or Long Term Disability benefits

In Delaware River & Bay Authority v. Kopacz, ___ F.3d. ____ (3d Cir. Sept. 25, 2009), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit made clear that commuter seaman – those who eat and sleep on land each night – are entitled to “maintenance”. Kopacz was a seaman who commuted to work each day. In 2004, he suffered a back injury and was later deemed “unfit” for duty. Thus, he qualified for and received Sick and Accident benefits and thereafter, Long Term Disability benefits. He also applied for and was awarded Social Security Disability benefits.

Meanwhile, Employer did not make separate maintenance payments to Kopacz contending that he would receive a “double recovery” . Employer argued that Kopacz’s wages already enabled him to procure food and housing on land and that Social Security Disability and long-term disability payments adequately covered Kopacz’s living expenses.

The Third Circuit rejected this argument relying, in part, on its holding in Barnes v. Andover Company, L.P., 900 F.2d 630 (3d Cir. 1999), and the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 532 (1962), in which it affirmed that seamen are “wards” of admiralty. In so holding, the Court declined to make exceptions to the shipowner’s duty to provide maintenance and cure.

The Third Circuit also determined that Employer could not offset the amount of maintenance based on the seaman’s receipt of long-term or Social Security Disability. See, Shaw v. Ohio River Company, 526 F.2d 193 (3d Cir. 1975). In sum, the Third Circuit in Kopacz made “explicit what was implicit in Barnes: commuter seamen enjoy the same right to maintenance as their blue water counterparts.”