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28 May 2014
A seafarer was repatriated on December 2 1996 due to the completion of his employment contract. On January 6 1997 the seafarer had himself medically examined and was diagnosed with pneumonia/tuberculosis foci. He had a further examination on May 18 1997, which showed that he had elevated blood sugar. On November 4 1999 the seafarer went to the seafarers' hospital, where he was found to be suffering from Type 2 diabetes mellitus, Class 3 cavitary pulmonary tuberculosis and ataxia, a movement disorder which affected his left side upper and lower extremities. On November 18 1999 the seafarer consulted a private doctor for an assessment of his disability and the doctor issued a medical certificate on the same day confirming the Grade 1 disability. The seafarer then filed a complaint for:
The labour arbiter ruled in favour of the seafarer and awarded Grade 1 disability benefits of $50,000. It was reasoned that the seafarer's illness was contracted during the term of his employment contract. The labour arbiter also observed that before the seafarer was hired he underwent a medical examination and was declared fit to work, but after seven months of work he was found to be suffering from pneumonia/tuberculosis foci. It was thus concluded that the seafarer had contracted the disease during the term of his employment.
On appeal, the National Labour Relations Commission (NLRC) set aside the labour arbiter's decision and dismissed the complaint for lack of merit. The NLRC found that the seafarer had failed to adduce any evidence which established that he contracted or suffered from pneumonia/tuberculosis foci during his contract as no medical certificate was issued while he was still onboard the vessel. His earliest medical certificate was issued on January 6 1997, more than one month after repatriation. The NLRC thus held that he was not repatriated due to medical reasons but on completion of his seven-month contract.
The NLRC also found that under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract, a seafarer who is medically repatriated should submit himself to a post-medical examination within three days of his return, or to notify the agency within the same period of his physical incapacity to do so. Failure to comply results in the forfeiture of the right to sickness allowance and disability benefits.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the NLRC's decision, as did the Supreme Court.(1)
Under the POEA contract, in order to be entitled to benefits the employee must show that the claimed injury or illness was contracted during the term of employment. The unqualified phrase 'during the term' covers all injuries or illnesses occurring during the lifetime of the contract.
The seafarer failed to prove by substantial evidence that he suffered any illness during the term of his employment. There was no record of any medical complaint lodged by the seafarer during his employment or even after his arrival in the Philippines on December 2 1996. As correctly observed, his submitted medical certificates were issued long after the seafarer had disembarked the vessel. Except for bare allegations, no evidence was presented that could establish that the seafarer had contracted his illness during his employment. In fact, the company was not even aware or apprised of the seafarer's illness until the seafarer claimed for disability benefits almost three years later. Thus, credence was given to the company's claim that the seafarer was repatriated due to the completion of his employment contract and not for medical reasons.
The court held that assuming the seafarer had suffered the illness during his employment and was repatriated due to medical reasons, as he claimed, it was mandatory that he submit himself to a post-employment medical examination within three working days of his arrival in the Philippines, before his right to a claim for disability or death benefits could prosper. The three-day mandatory reporting requirement must be strictly observed, since within three days of repatriation it would be fairly manageable for a physician to identify whether the disease was contracted during the term of employment or that working conditions had increased the risk of contracting the ailment.
In this case, the seafarer admitted that he had had his physical examination on January 6 1997, more than a month after his arrival in the Philippines. Clearly, the seafarer had failed to comply with the required three-day rule for a post-employment medical examination and there was no way of demonstrating that he had been physically incapacitated, which would have justified non-compliance.
The claimant attempted to argue that such requirement applies only if the seafarer is fully aware that he already has the illness on disembarkation, and not when he is unaware of its existence as the symptoms have not yet manifested. This too was debunked by the court.
The post-employment medical examination within three days is required in order to ascertain a physical condition. To ignore the rule would set a precedent with negative repercussions and would open the floodgates to a limitless number of seafarers claiming disability benefits. It would certainly be unfair to the employer, which would find it difficult to determine the cause of a claimant's illness considering the passage of time. In such a case, employers would have no protection against unrelated disability claims.
The court held that the:
"[p]etitioners' admission that no symptoms of Enrique's illness had manifested at the time of his arrival in the Philippines revealed that he indeed was not suffering of any ailment then, and was even in good health upon his arrival which even bolstered our earlier findings that he was repatriated due to the completion of his employment contract and not due to any medical reason. Moreover, the post-employment medical examination within 3 days from Enrique's arrival is required in order to ascertain his physical condition, since 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."
While this case was decided based on the old POEA standard employment contract, the principles enunciated in the case stand, as the same provisions are incorporated in the 2010 POEA contract.
For further information on this topic please contact Ruben T Del Rosario at Del Rosario & Del Rosario Law Offices by telephone (+63 2 810 1791), fax (+63 2 817 1740) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Del Rosario & Del Rosario Law Offices website can be accessed at www.delrosariolaw.com.
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Ruben T Del Rosario