IT is incumbent upon the employers, not the seafarer, to present the accident report in disability benefits claims since they are in possession of said documentary evidence.
This was the ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of CF Sharp Crew Mgt. vs Daganato (G.R. No. 243399. July 6, 2022) involving an injured seafarer hired as chief cook.
While carrying a heavy provision of food, the seafarer suddenly slipped and fell causing mild to moderate pain in his lower back area. The pain persisted and his condition worsened until he was medically repatriated.
After surgery and therapy, he was assessed by the company-designated physician with partial disability of Grade 11 (slight rigidity or 1/3 loss of lifting power of the trunk).
He then consulted a personal doctor who issued a medical certificate stating that he is permanently unfit in any capacity to resume his sea duties as a seafarer. He claimed disability benefits under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
The company argued that the CBA provisions are inapplicable as there was no accident and that the seafarer is only entitled to US$7,465 for Grade 11 under the POEA-standard employment contract.
The Supreme Court ruled that the seafarer is entitled to a higher amount as he has suffered from an accident.
The Court stressed that it was incumbent upon the employer to prove that there was no accident, given they are in possession of accident reports. They, however, failed to do so.
The Court stressed that seafarers are generally at the mercy of harsh and unpredictable conditions of the sea and the weather, and are continually exposed to risks and hazards of their chosen line of work. Being constantly away from their homes, they are reasonably expected to rely on the care and protection that their employers provide while on board.
Employers, through their ship captains or officers, are thus expected to be on the lookout for accidents or mishaps, and prepare a report of the same. It is thus incumbent for the employers to proffer evidence that will negate the seafarer’s claims, considering that they are in possession of accident reports.
While the employers were able to submit the Master’s Sworn Certification, attesting to the fact that there was no accident involving the seafarer, the same was submitted only in their Motion for Reconsideration to the decision of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators (PVA).
The Court considered the employer’s evidence and other factual circumstances in determining the possibility that the seafarer suffered an accident while on board the vessel.
Prior to his deployment, the seafarer was not suffering from any physical anomalies that would render him unfit for seafaring activities. He was declared fit to work prior to his deployment. It is safe to assume that the seafarer would not have been allowed to commence his work, specifically for the chief cook position, which is a physically demanding job, if he was unfit for employment.
This is also bolstered by the employers’ own admission that the seafarer “sought consultation in Los Angeles, U.S.A. where x-ray was done showing normal results.”
The claimant, a fully abled seafarer prior to boarding the vessel, suddenly complained of “low back pain, colds, nasal congestion, and headache” while on board the vessel, a fact that was recognized by employers themselves and shown by their ’ Medical Examination Report.
The employers likewise recognized that the seafarer was seen by the company physician and was subjected to several surgeries to relieve his back pain and headache.
The seafarer, on his part, presented the medical results showing his back injuries, and the medical opinion prepared by his own doctor who declared him permanently unfit in any capacity to resume his sea duties as a seafarer.
All of these circumstances and substantial evidence taken together strongly indicate that the seafarer indeed met an accident while on board the vessel.
In the earlier case of Sunga vs Virjen Shipping (G.R. No. 198640, April 23, 2014), the Court defined an “accident” is “an unintended and unforeseen injurious occurrence; something that does not occur in the usual course of events or that could not be reasonably anticipated” in which no fault of negligence attaches to the seafarer.
The seafarer will always have the minimum rights as per the POEA contract, but to the extent that a CBA gives better benefits, these terms will override the POEA contract terms.
In some CBAs, the higher benefits are applicable only in cases where the injury or illness is due to an accident.
The Daganato ruling in essence overturned Buenaventura vs Career Phil. (G.R. No. 224127, August 15, 2018). The Court ruled that the CBA is not applicable since there was neither a report on the ship’s logbook nor the Master’s report regarding the said incident.
(Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail email@example.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786)