Supreme Court holds that substantial evidence needs to be presented for application of disputable presumption clause in POEA Contract
Seafarer was engaged by the company as Second Cook on-board the ship. Seafarer alleged that the drinking water is salty and dirty. During the voyage, respondent experienced sudden pain all over his body and experienced nausea. Thus, when the ship anchored in Rotterdam, he consulted a doctor who diagnosed him with Costen Syndrome. Despite taking medication, seafarer’s condition did not improve. Hence, he was sent to a doctor in Singapore and then in China, who diagnosed him of urethritis and kidney stones. Eventually, he finished his contract and he argued that after repatriation, the company did not refer him to the company-designated physician to undergo a medical examination due to the absence of a master’s medical pass. He was constrained to seek treatment from his personal doctor and underwent Nephrectomy. Eventually, his doctor issued an opinion that he is no longer fit for sea duties. Thus, he filed a complaint for full disability compensation against the company.
The company argued that seafarer was repatriated due to a finished contract and did not report for a post- employment medical examination upon his repatriation. The company also argued that seafarer’s illnesses are not occupational diseases and not work-related.
Both the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC denied the claim after finding that the seafarer finished his contract and did not report for post-employment medical examination with the company-designated physician. They also found that the illness of the seafarer is not compensable as it is not work-related. However, upon further petition, the Court of Appeals awarded full disability benefits to the seafarer and ruled that the illnesses were caused or aggravated by his employment. In any case, the illnesses of the seafarer are presumed to be work-related and the company failed to overcome such presumption.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, the claim was again denied.
Seafarer failed to comply with the mandatory post-employment medical examination
The Court noted that the seafarer developed several illnesses while onboard the ship. This is supported by the medical certificates from the foreign doctors. In Rotterdam, seafarer was informed, after medical evaluation, that his condition of body pain and nausea, were triggered by stress. He was then diagnosed with Costen Syndrome. Meanwhile, in China, he was diagnosed with urethritis and kidney stones. This, notwithstanding, his illnesses are not deemed compensable for they neither rendered him unfit for any sea duty nor disabled him in any way. This is evident in the fact that despite being diagnosed of having kidney stones and urethritis, the seafarer did not seek immediate repatriation. In fact, the seafarer was able to fulfill his sea duties and finish his employment contract with the company. It, thus, seems that his condition is neither severe nor complicated.
Even if this Court were to consider that seafarer was repatriated for health reasons, his failure to submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three working days upon his return militates against his claim for disability benefits. The purpose of this three-day mandatory reporting requirement is to allow the employer’s doctors a reasonable opportunity to assess the seafarer’s medical condition in order to determine whether his illness is work-related or not. Within three days from repatriation, it would be fairly easier for a physician to determine if the illness was work-related or not. After that period, there would be difficulty in ascertaining the real cause of the illness. To ignore the rule would set a precedent with negative repercussions because it would open the floodgates to a limitless number of seafarers claiming disability benefits. It would certainly be unfair to the employer who would have difficulty determining the cause of a claimant’s illness considering the passage of time. In such a case, the employers would have no protection against unrelated disability claims.
It has been established that after his repatriation, seafarer did not report to the company nor to the company-designated physician for a post-employment medical examination. While seafarer tried to justify such omission by claiming that the company refused to examine him for lack of a master’s medical pass, he failed to prove such defense. Seafarer did not present any evidence to prove that he tried to submit himself to a company-designated physician within three working days upon his return. He also did not present any letter that he was physically incapacitated to see the company-designated physician in order to be exempted from the rule. Worse, it took him months from repatriation to seek medical attention for his ailments, not from the company-designated physician, but from a doctor of his choice. In fact, at the time of the filing of the complaint, no doctor has declared him unfit to work. The Court held that seafarer’s failure to comply with the three-day mandatory reporting requirement is fatal to his case.
Substantial evidence needs to be presented for application of disputable presumption clause in POEA Contract
The Court held that while there is a disputable presumption that seafarer’s illnesses were work-related considering that they are not among those enumerated as occupational diseases under the POEA Contract, he is still required to discharge his own burden of proving compliance with the first three (3) conditions of compensability under the contract, i.e., that (1) the seafarer’s work must involve the risks described herein; (2) the disease was contracted as a result of the seafarer’s exposure to the described risks; and (3) the disease was contracted within a period of exposure and under such other factors necessary to contract it. The disputable presumption does not signify an automatic grant of compensation and/or benefits claim; the seafarer must still prove his entitlement to disability benefits by substantial evidence of his illness’ work-relatedness.
In this case, the Court disagreed with the argument of the seafarer that his ailments were caused and aggravated by his exposure to several factors on board the vessel, such as: drinking dirty and salty water, and long exposure to heat in the kitchen where he was working as a cook causing dehydration.
While drinking salty and dirty water, and dehydration may indeed cause kidney stones, the seafarer failed to prove that he and the other crew members were made to drink saline and rusty water. The seafarer merely made bare allegations without proof to support his claims. On the other hand, records show that the company sufficiently proved that there was adequate water supply, mineral water, onboard the vessel for the consumption of the whole crew. Further, if indeed they were made to drink merely desalinated seawater, not mineral water, why was it that of all the crew members of the ship, only him developed kidney stones and urethritis? Likewise, no other crew member complained of the purported unhygienic drinking water. Finally, as a cook, it is part of his tasks to stay for a longer period of time in the kitchen. It is, thus, his duty to himself to see to it that he regularly hydrates with water.
The Court concluded that seafarer failed to discharge the burden of proof that there is causal connection between the nature of his employment and his illnesses, or that the risk of contracting the illnesses was increased by his working conditions.
OSG Shipmanagement Manila, Inc., Michaelmar Shipping Services, Inc. et al vs. V. DJ, G.R. No. 207344, November 18, 2020; Associate Justice Samuel Gaerlan, ponente (Attys. Herbert Tria and Julius Yano of DelRosarioLaw handled for vessel interests)
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