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Supreme Court affirms adherence to the 240 day ruling; cites third doctor rule as ground for denial of benefits

Philippine Shipping Update – Manning Industry

By:  Ruben Del Rosario, President, Del Rosario Pandiphil Inc.,  July 21, 2017 (Issue 2017/11)

Supreme Court affirms adherence to the 240 day ruling; cites third doctor rule as ground for denial of benefits

Seafarer, during employment, experienced pricking pains in his left scrotal area. He was referred to a shore medical facility who diagnosed him "to be afflicted with 'Varicocele' and was recommended to undergo surgery upon repatriation.
 
Upon return to Manila, the seafarer was referred to the company-designated physician who diagnosed him to be suffering from "suspicious varicocele, left." Seafarer underwent operation and was then referred to a urologist for further examination and treatment.  Seafarer was assessed with an interim disability of grade “12” by the company-designated physician but was advised to undergo further re-evaluation.  However, instead of the seaman seeking re-evaluation, he filed a claim for disability benefits.  After filing the complaint, the seafarer sought an opinion from his personal doctor stating that he is already permanently disabled.  Less than two weeks from the filing of the complaint, the seafarer returned for re-evaluation to the company-designated doctor and was declared fit to work.   The seafarer argues that since no final assessment was issued within 120 days of treatment, he is now considered permanently and totally disabled.  The employer suggested for the parties to refer the matter to an agreed third doctor which the seafarer refused.
 
Both the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC denied the claim.  However, the Court of Appeals awarded disability benefits to the seaman and considered him to be permanently and totally disabled as the final assessment issued by the company-designated doctor was issued after the lapse of 120 days or on the 136th day.   The appellate court held that the 240 day ruling was not consistently applied by the Supreme Court.
 
Upon petition before the Supreme Court, the claim was dismissed.
 
The Supreme Court has consistently adhered to the 240 day ruling
 
The Supreme Court has reminded that they have consistently adhered to the 240 day ruling.  It again reiterated that the Court had already harmonized its various rulings with respect to the periods within which a seafarer may be declared fit or unfit for sea duties for the purposes of his claim for permanent and total disability compensation. To emphasize, the general rule remains to be that — the company-designated physician must declare the seafarer fit for sea duties within a period of 120 days; otherwise, the latter must be declared totally and permanently disabled entitling him to full disability benefits. It is only when there is sufficient justification may the company-designated physician be allowed to avail of the exceptional 240-day extended period.   
 
Applying the same in this case, the Court was convinced that there existed a sufficient justification to extend the period of medical treatment and assessment of the seafarer by the company-designated physician.
 
The seafarer was still undergoing medical treatment and evaluation after the lapse of the 120-day period. In fact, the seafarer agreed to a further medical evaluation even after the 120 days period, when he himself complained of the on-and-off pains in his scrotal area. Verily, these circumstances justified the allowance of the extension of the temporary disability period, and consequently of the period to treat and assess his medical condition, to the exceptional 240 days.  Thus, the certification of his fitness to work issued well within the extended 240-day period was timely made.
 
No valid challenge to the company-designated physician's medical assessment
 
The Court has again cited the third doctor procedure laid down in the POEA Contract.  Said procedure has been interpreted to mean that it is the company-designated physician who is entrusted with the task of assessing the seafarer's disability during the term of his employment. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the said assessment is final, binding or conclusive on the seafarer, the labor tribunal or the courts. The seafarer may dispute such assessment by exercising his right to a second opinion and to consult a physician of his choice, in which case the medical report issued by the latter shall be evaluated by the labor tribunal and the court, based on its inherent merit. In case of disagreement between the findings of the company-designated physician and the seafarer's physician, the parties may agree to jointly refer the matter to a third doctor whose decision shall be final and binding on them.
 
Guided by the above ruling, the Court found that seafarer failed to comply with the required procedure which now justifies the dismissal of his complaint. In the first place, an irregularity is readily apparent in this case. Aside from the premature filing of his complaint (as he filed the same prior to the issuance of a final assessment), it is beyond dispute that he consulted with his physician of choice before the company-designated physician could issue a certification of fitness to work. This is in clear breach of the third doctor procedure which essentially provides that resort to a second opinion must be done after the assessment by the company-designated physician precisely to dispute the said assessment.
 
Further, for reasons known only to him, the seafarer refused to refer the matter to a third doctor whose assessment would have been binding to all the parties concerned. The Court has held that non-referral to a third physician, whose findings shall be considered as final and binding, constitutes a breach of the POEA-SEC.  For failure of the seafarer to comply with the mandatory procedure of referral to a third doctor, the Court has no other option but to declare that the company-designated doctor's certification must prevail.
 
Tradephil Shipping Agencies, Inc. et. al.  vs. Dante Dela Cruz, G.R. No. 210307, February 22, 2017, Second Division, Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza
 
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  • IRR Seafarer's Protection Act
  • Seafarers Protection Act
  • ORDINANCE No. 28 Series of 2015 Zambales, Philippines
  • NLRC MEMO on 3rd Doctor
  • NLRC Rules of Procedure 2011
  • Standard Terms and Conditions of Del Rosario Law
  • POEA SEC - 2010 Amendments
  • POEA Memorandum Circular No. 10 Series of 2010
  • Governing Board Resolution No. 09 Series of 2010

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