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16 July 2014
A seafarer was engaged as an able-bodied seaman for a nine-month period, subject to a three-month extension by mutual consent. The seafarer boarded the vessel on April 20 2003 and was repatriated to the Philippines 17 months later on September 8 2004. Two days after repatriation, the seafarer was confined to a hospital intensive care unit due to pneumonia. The seafarer's wife advised the company of the seafarer's confinement a week after his repatriation. The seafarer was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and brain metastasis, and after several hospital stays he died on March 1 2005.
The seafarer's heirs filed a claim for death benefits before the labour arbiter. The labour arbiter dismissed the claim as death was suffered outside the term of employment and there was no evidence that working conditions brought about the seafarer's illness. In addition, the seafarer had not complied with the mandatory requirement to undergo a post-employment medical examination.
The heirs appealed to the National Labour Relations Commission (NLRC). The NLRC awarded illness benefits to the seafarer as sick pay and reimbursement of medical expenses only, as it concluded that the seafarer had suffered with his illness during the employment term and that it was disputably presumed to be work-related. However, the claim for death benefits was denied because the seafarer died outside his employment term.
The heirs took the matter to the Court of Appeals and obtained a favourable decision whereby death benefits were awarded in addition to the amounts awarded by the NLRC. The Court of Appeals held that while there were no reports of illness during the seafarer's employment, the fact that he was hospitalised just two days after repatriation demonstrated that he was already suffering from the illness during his employment. As such, it concluded that the illness was work related or aggravated. The fact that he died outside the employment term should not be a hindrance to the claim, as long as it was shown that the employment had contributed, even to a small degree, to the developments of the disease and eventual death. It was also held that the seafarer's illness was disputably presumed to be work related based on the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract.
The company took the matter to the Supreme Court, which denied the claim for death benefits.
The Supreme Court(1) held that under Section 20A of the POEA contract, both the labour arbiter and the NLRC were correct in exercising their discretion to not award death benefits. Under the POEA contract, for death benefits to be compensable death must occur during the employment term. In this case, the seafarer died six months after his employment ended.
The Supreme Court held that unlike in Section 20A, Section 32 considers the possibility of compensation for the death of a seafarer occurring after the termination of the employment contract. However, for death to be compensable it must be shown that:
In this case, the Supreme Court noted that no evidence was presented by the heirs to show that the requirements for compensability were present. There was no documentation which would demonstrate that the seafarer fell ill during his employment. There was no concrete evidence as to the duties of the seafarer and how they could have resulted in him acquiring his illness. Thus, it cannot be inferred that the seafarer's death after the contract term had ended was compensable, if the inference was based solely on the circumstance that he was confined to hospital two days after repatriation and died six months later.
The Supreme Court stated that:
"In summary, the NLRC and the CA were excessively fixated on the proximity of the time between the repatriation and the death of the seafarer to automatically conclude that he contracted a fatal illness during his service. The CA even stressed in its ruling that it was safe to make that presumption.
This approach to case disposition by the CA – making the factual findings based only on presumptions, and absent the quantum of evidence required in labor cases – is an erroneous application of the law on compensation proceedings. As we have ruled in Gabunas, Sr. v. Scanmar Maritime Services, Inc., citing Government Service Insurance System v. Cuntapay, claimants in compensation proceedings must show credible information that there is probably a relation between the illness and the work. Probability, and not mere possibility, is required; otherwise, the resulting conclusion would proceed from deficient proofs. Thus, since the CA crafted a legal conclusion out of conjectures and without substantial evidence, we rule that a reversible error of law attended its award of death benefits, minor child's allowance, and burial expenses. For this reason, we delete the grant thereof to respondent."
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