Labor-friendly presumption

A LAW EACH DAY (KEEPS TROUBLE AWAY) - Jose C. Sison - The Philippine Star

Can a seaman who was medically repatriated before the end of his contract still recover benefits upon his death even if his work-related ailment is not listed under the POEA Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) as an occupational disease? This is the issue raised in this case of Randy.

Randy has been employed by a local shipping agency (UPL) for its principal in Holland (HAL) under various contracts serving on board its vessels for almost 23 years already. In his last contract he served as “Demi Chef De Partie” on board its vessel MS Prinsendam with a basic salary of $799.55. The Contract of Employment was for a term of four months extendible for another two months upon mutual consent. After complying with the required pre-employment medical examination where he was declared fit to work, Randy boarded the vessel and started to work.

Barely a month on board the vessel Randy experienced severe pain in his ears and high blood pressure causing him to collapse while performing his job. He consulted a doctor in Argentina and was medically repatriated for further medical treatment. Upon arrival in Manila he was immediately brought to a hospital where he was examined by a company designated physician and was diagnosed to be suffering from “Brainstem Cavernous Malformation.” He underwent surgery twice for the said ailment but developed complications and died one month and one week after signing his contract and starting work.

Randy’s surviving wife, Connie, claimed death benefits pursuant to the International Transport Workers’ Federation Collective Bargaining Agreement (ITWF-CBA) of which Randy was a member. But UPL and HAL refused because of the medical opinion of another doctor and not by the company designated physician who attended to him. The opinion was contained in an unsigned electronic mail (e-mail) certifying that Randy’s illness was congenital and that there may be familial strains in his case, hence, his death was not work related.

Consequently Connie was forced to file a Complaint for death benefits pursuant to the ITWF-CBA amounting to $60,000, plus burial assistance, moral and exemplary damages, and attorney’s fees.

In their defense, UPL and HAL maintained that Connie is not entitled to recover said death benefits because Randy’s illness was not work related considering that it is not listed as an occupational disease under the 2000 POEA SEC and that his death did not occur during the term of his employment contract because he was medically repatriated already by that time.

In its decision, the Labor Arbiter ruled in favor of Connie and awarded her a total of $67,100 or P3,031,683.00. The LA ruled that even if Randy’s illness was not among the listed occupational diseases under the 2000 POEA-SEC, his death was compensable as said illness that caused his death occurred in the course of his engagement with UPL and HAL which started about 23 years ago under various employment contracts. The LA did not give credence to the medical opinion submitted by the Companies which was unsigned and not certified by the doctor and thus had no evidentiary value. This ruling was sustained by the NLRC. But on appeal to the Court of Appeals (CA), the latter reversed and set aside the decisions of the LA and NLRC and sustained the stand of UPL and HAL. Was the CA correct?

No. Under the provision of the 2000 POEA-SEC which is deemed incorporated in every seafarer’s contract, beneficiaries of a deceased seafarer may be able to claim death benefits if they are able to establish that (a) the seafarer’s death is work related, and (b) such death had occurred during the term of his employment. “Work related death” refers to the seafarer’s death resulting from work related injury or illness. An injury or illness is said to arise in the course of employment when it takes place within the period of employment at a place where the employee reasonably may be, and while he is fulfilling his duties or is engaged in something incidental thereto.

While it is true that Randy’s illness is not listed as an occupational disease under the POEA-SEC (Section 32-A), it is still disputably presumed as work related when the seafarer suffers said illness during the term of his contract and it becomes incumbent on the employer to overcome the presumption by substantial evidence or such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. In this case the medical opinion of the doctor embodied in a mere print out of an e-mail that was not signed or certified to by said doctor cannot be given probative value to overcome the presumption.

And as to the second requirement for death compensability, while the general rule is that the seafarer’s death should occur during the term of his employment, the seafarer’s death occurring after the termination of his employment due to medical repatriation on account of a work related illness constitutes an exception thereto. As it has been established that Randy had been suffering from a work related illness during the term of his employment that caused his medical repatriation, and ultimately his death, it is but proper and just to consider the same as compensable work-related death even if it occurred after his repatriation (Racelis vs. United Philippine Lines Inc, et.al, G.R. 198408, November 12, 2014).

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E-mail: [email protected]

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