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Supreme Court holds that disability grading should be upheld and not number of days seafarer is unable to work

Philippine Shipping Update – Manning Industry

By:  Ruben Del Rosario, President, Del Rosario Pandiphil Inc., 19 February 2019 (Issue 2019/02)

 
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Supreme Court holds that disability grading should be upheld and not number of days seafarer is unable to work

 

The seafarer was employed by the company as an Environmental Operator on-board the vessel.  Three months into his contract, the seafarer was brought to the ship's clinic for medical examination after experiencing dizziness, overfatigue, frequent urination and blurring of eyesight. He was found to have had elevated blood sugar and blood pressure. Eventually, he was medically repatriated and was referred by the company to their designated physicians.
 
After extensive treatment for 118 days, the company-designated physician issued a certification indicating that seafarer's condition was not work-related and that his final disability grading for hypertension and diabetes was grade 12.
 
The crew thereafter consulted his physician of choice who opined that he had high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes mellitus. The opinion further stated that the seafarer's condition was work-related owing to the pressure on the ship, which elevated his blood pressure and to unbalanced food aboard, which elevated his blood sugar. In conclusion, the opinion stated that the seafarer was permanently disabled to discharge his duties as a seafarer.
 
Given the contradicting medical opinions, the crew filed a claim for disability and sickness pay benefits with damages before the labor court.
 
The Labor Arbiter awarded disability benefits to the seafarer finding that the illnesses are work-related and that he is already [permanently and totally disabled.
 
Upon appeal to the NLRC, the award was modified and financial assistance was given based on the corresponding grade 12 disability assessment of the company-designated physician. The NLRC held that the seafarer failed to prove that his diabetes and hypertension were work-related.
 
The Court of Appeals on the other hand reinstated the award of the Labor Arbiter with a finding that the illnesses are work-related and that the seafarer is considered permanently and totally disabled as he was unable to return to work after 120 days.
 
With the Supreme Court, the award issued by the NLRC was sustained. 
 
Disability to be determined by grading issued by the company-designated doctor 
 
In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that while a seafarer is entitled to temporary total disability benefits during his treatment period, it does not follow that he should likewise be entitled to permanent total disability benefits when his disability was assessed by the company-designated physician after his treatment.  He may be recognized to have permanent disability because of the period he was out of work and could not work, but the extent of his disability (whether total or partial) is determined, not by the number of days that he could not work, but by the disability grading the doctor recognizes based on his resulting incapacity to work and earn wages.
 
It is the doctor’s findings that should prevail as he or she is equipped with the proper discernment, knowledge experience and expertise on what constitutes total or partial disability.  The physician’s declaration serves as the basis for the degree of disability that can range anywhere from Grade 1 to Grade 14.  Notably, this is a serious consideration that cannot be determined by simply counting the number of treatment lapsed days. 
 
The medical assessment of the company-designated physician was not validly challenged 
 
The Court noted that the company-designated physician assessed the seafarer with a grade 12 partial disability.  On the other hand, the personal doctor of the seafarer assessed him to be permanently and totally disabled. 
 
In comparing the different assessments, the Court noted that the company-designated physician conducted numerous and extensive medical consultations on the seafarer.  In contrast the personal doctor of the seafarer issued a lone medical certificate which makes the same of doubtful credibility and reliability.
 
Moreover, the seafarer never signified his intention to resolve the disagreement in the conflicting medical opinions to a third doctor in accordance with the procedure laid down by the POEA Contract.  In the absence of such compliance, the final assessment of the company-designated physician must be upheld.  
 
Hypertension and diabetes does not in itself result into a permanent and total disability
 
The Court held that merely having hypertension does not warrant an award of disability benefits. While Essential Hypertension is listed as an occupational disease under the POEA Contract, its mere work-relation and compliance with the requirements of the contract will not make it automatically compensable.  The POEA Contract requires an element of gravity. It speaks of essential hypertension only as an overture to the impairment of function of body organs like kidneys, heart, eyes and brain.  This impairment must then be of such severity as to be resulting in permanent disability.  In this case, the company-designated physician opined that seafarer’s hypertension is not essential or primary, hence it was not severe for which reason, only a partial disability was given. 
 
On the other hand, diabetes is not among the listed occupational disease in the POEA Contract.  The Court held that such condition is a metabolic and a familial disease to which one is pre-disposed by reason of heredity, obesity or old age. It does not indicate work-relatedness and by its nature, is more the result of poor lifestyle choices and health habits for which disability benefits are improper.  The company-designated physician likewise opined that seafarer’s diabetes is not severe and in fact, his examinations showed good results and was merely advised to take maintenance medications.
 
Concluding, the Court held that the crew's conditions do not in itself warrant an award of permanent and total disability benefits. The POEA Contract even recognizes that a seafarer can still be employed even if he has hypertension and/or diabetes provided that he shows compliance with the prescribed maintenance medications and doctor-recommended lifestyle changes.  Thus, the Grade 12 disability benefits was sustained by the Court.
 
C.F. Sharp Crew Management, Inc. et. al. and/or Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. vs. J. S., G.R. No. 213731, August 1, 2018, Third Division, Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo, ponente (our Attys. Charles Dela Cruz and Jamella Joya handled for vessel interests)
 
Firm News
 
Del Rosario Partner Denise Cabanos was inducted as President of the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW) 2018-2019 in Hong Kong last 19 January 2019 before the Honorable Consul General Antonio A. Morales.  Denise is continuing the firm’s rich heritage in MARLAW as the fifth Del Rosario Law Partner to become the MARLAW President of MARLAW since it was established in 1982.
 
Managing Associates Pedrito and Gina Guinto were appointed as Vice President for Ways and Means and Corporate Secretary respectively of MARLAW.  Senior Associates, Aldrich Del Rosario, Richard Sanchez and Julius Yano were also appointed as Vice Presidents for Sports and Recreational Activities, Social Media and Special Projects, respectively.
 
Our thanks to the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong for hosting the event and to Honorable Consul General Morales for being the inducting officer.
 
More power to MARLAW and congratulations!
 
 
Areas of Specialization: Shipping, Labour, Transport, Corporate, Mergers & Acquisitions, Insurance, Immigration, Litigation, Arbitration, Intellectual Property
 
2018 AsiaLaw Profiles: Outstanding in Shipping, Maritime & Aviation; Recommended in Dispute Resolution & Litigation, Intellectual Property, Labour & Employment
 
“Del Rosario & Del Rosario has the strongest shipping practice in the Philippines. They definitely deserves the top ranking.” AsiaLaw Profiles 2018
 
“We rely on them when there’s a problem. We can trust them. And they can deliver the service required.” The Legal 500 2018
 
“For almost four decades, DelRosarioLaw has led in the shipping and transport practice in the Philippines by assisting stakeholders in fostering institutional changes to ensure the continued viability of the local shipping and manning sectors. This enduring reputation has made the firm’s opinion in major maritime policies of the country most sought after.” Chambers Asia-Pacific 2018

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Downloads

  • 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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