Insanity or mental illness required to be proven must be one that deprived him of the full control of his senses; in other words, there must be sufficient proof to negate voluntariness.” Seafarer’s strange behavior alone is insufficient to prove his insanity.

However, seafarer’s strange behavior resulting in his death coupled with employer’s negligence and nonchalant attitude may result in employer’s liability as held in the case of Interorient Maritime Enterprises, Inc. vs. NLRC (G.R. No. 115497, September 16, 1996, 261 SCRA 757.).

Thus, the Supreme Court held in the following case:

Seapower Shipping, Ent., Inc. vs. Heirs of Warren M. Sabanal, represented by Elvira Ong-Sabanal
G.R. No. 198544, June 19, 2017


Seapower, for and on behalf of its principal Westward Maritime Corporation, hired Warren M. Sabanal (Sabanal) as Third Mate onboard MT Montana.


Get an updated and re-numbered copy of the Labor Code per RA 10151 and Department Advisory 01, Series of 2017 with Notes and Comments by Atty. Villanueva

During voyage, Sabanal started exhibiting unusual behavior. When the ship captain checked on him, he responded incoherently, though it appeared that he had problems with his brother in the Philippines. This prompted the captain to set double guards on Sabanal.

The sailors watching over Sabanal reported that he wanted to board a life boat, citing danger in the ship’s prow. Because of Sabanal ‘s condition, the captain relieved him of his shift and allowed him to sleep in the cabin guarded. The following day, the captain wanted to supervise Sabanal better, so he took him on deck and assigned to him simple tasks, such as correcting maps and collecting and typing the crew’s declarations.

The captain observed that Sabanal’s condition was “rather better” and he “did not appear to have any problems.” Later that day, Sabanal requested the sailor-on-guard that he be allowed to return to the deck for some fresh air. Once on deck, Sabanal suddenly ran to the stem and jumped to the sea. The ship’s rescue attempts proved futile, and Sabanal’ s body was never recovered.

During the first week of October 1995, Seapower informed Sabanal’s wife, Elvira, regarding the incident. According to Elvira, Seapower was non-committal regarding Sabanal’ s contractual benefits that would accrue to her and their two children. She alleged that Seapower told her that she has to wait for a period of seven to ten years before Sabanal can be declared dead.

Relying on Seapower’s representation, Elvira went back to Seapower sometime in late 2004 or early 2005 to claim whatever benefits she was entitled to.

Seapower informed her that she was only entitled to the death benefits under the Social Security System; Seapower, allegedly for the first time, categorically disclaimed any liability for Sabanal’s death. Thus, it was only on May 16, 2005 that Elvira was able to file a complaint for payment of Sabanal’ s death benefits.

Seapower, however, denied that it deceived Elvira into believing that she had to wait for seven years before she could claim death benefits. It claimed that it was forthright with Elvira and told her early on that her husband committed suicide. Seapower raised as defenses the prescription of Elvira’s action, the assumption of Bright Maritime Corporation of full responsibility over seafarers onboard MT Montana, and the non-compensability of death resulting from suicide.

LA Ruling:

The Labor Arbiter dismissed Elvira’s case on the grounds of prescription and lack of merit. It ruled that Elvira failed to substantiate her claim that Seapower misled her to wait for seven to ten years; thus, her claim was already barred by the statute of limitations.

In any case, the Labor Arbiter ruled that the pieces of evidence submitted by Seapower, particularly, copies of the ship’s log and the master’s report, clearly show that Sabanal took his own life. Hence, his death is not compensable.

NLRC Ruling:

On appeal, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) First Division affirmed the Labor Arbiter’s dismissal of the complaint.

Although it found that the action had not prescribed because the prescriptive period only began to run upon Seapower’s categorical denial of Elvira’s claim in early 2005, the NLRC found that Sabanal’s suicide was established by substantial evidence.

It held that when the death of the seaman resulted from his own willful act, the death is not compensable.

NLRC denied Elvira’s motion for reconsideration, Elvira elevated the case to the Court of Appeals on certiorari primarily raising the admissibility of the copies of the ship log and master’s report, which were only presented by Seapower in its rejoinder before the Labor Arbiter, as well as the finding that Sabanal willfully took his own life.

CA Ruling:

With respect to the first issue, the Court of Appeals did not find grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC because the tribunal is not strictly bound by technical rules of procedure and must use all reasonable means to ascertain the facts of the case.

The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the NLRC on the second issue. Relying on Sabanal’s strange conduct prior to jumping off ship, it concluded that “his actions were borne not by his willful disregard of his safety and of his life, but, on the contrary, he became paranoid that the ship was in grave danger, that he wanted to save himself from the imagined doom that was to befall the ship.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ordered Seapower to pay death benefits to Elvira. It subsequently denied Seapower’s motion for reconsideration.

Seapower elevated the case to the Supreme Court.


Whether or not strange behavior of the seafarer before killing himself by jumping overboard is compensable

SC Ruling:

The SC found merit in the petition.

Under the 1989 POEA-SEC, the employer is generally liable for death compensation benefits when a seafarer dies during the term of employment. The SC held that this rule, however, is not absolute.

Part II, Section C(6) of said POEA-SEC exempts the employer from liability if it can successfully prove that the seafarer’s death was caused by an injury directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act.

Since it is undisputed that Sabanal’ s death happened during the term of the employment contract, the burden rests on the employer to prove by substantial evidence that Sabanal’ s death was directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act. For its part, Seapower submitted the ship log entries and master’s report to prove that Sabanal suddenly jumped overboard the MT Montana.

Evidence of insanity or mental sickness may be presented to negate the requirement of willfulness as a matter of counter-defense. But the burden of evidence is then shifted to the claimant to prove that the seafarer was of unsound mind. The question, therefore, is whether Elvira was able to prove by substantial evidence that Sabanal has lost full control of his faculties when he jumped overboard. Or, more precisely, whether his unusual behavior prior to the incident is such substantial evidence.

Citing Agile Maritime Resources, Inc. vs. Siador (Agile), the SC held that “[s]ince the willfulness may be inferred from the physical act itself of the seafarer (his jump into the open sea), the insanity or mental illness required to be proven must be one that deprived him of the full control of his senses; in other words, there must be sufficient proof to negate voluntariness.” Seafarer’s strange behavior alone is insufficient to prove his insanity. Without proof that his mental condition negated the voluntariness he showed in stepping overboard, the finding of insanity was merely speculative.

The SC held further that the cases of Agile and Crewlink, Inc. vs. Teringtering are squarely applicable to the present case. Elvira did not present any evidence to support her claim that Sabanal was already insane when he jumped overboard.

Similar to the claimant in Agile, she only relied on the strange behavior of Sabanal as detailed by the ship captain in the ship log and master’s report. It is insufficient to prove that Sabanal had lost full control of his faculties. In order for insanity to prosper as a counter-defense, the claimant must substantially prove that the seafarer suffered from complete deprivation of intelligence in committing the act or complete absence of the power to discern the consequences of his action. Mere abnormality of the mental faculties does not foreclose willfulness.

The SC concluded that the primary basis of the employer’s liability in this kind of cases is that the employer’s negligence and nonchalant attitude towards the seafarer may establish its liability. The records show that as soon as the ship captain became aware of Sabanal’s unusual behavior, he immediately assigned other sailors to specifically watch over Sabanal.

At the time he jumped overboard, Sabanal was actually accompanied by a designated sailor. Unfortunately, the sailor was unable to stop Sabanal from jumping overboard because of the latter’s brisk movement. The crew then immediately undertook rescue maneuvers, throwing life buoys into the sea, turning the ship, and lowering the life boats. But despite their diligent efforts, they were unable to save Sabanal or recover his body.

While it is true that labor contracts are impressed with public interest and the provisions of the POEA-SEC must be construed logically and liberally in favor of Filipino seafarers in the pursuit of their employment on board ocean-going vessels, still, the rule is that justice is in every case for the deserving, to be dispensed with in the light of established facts, the applicable law, and existing jurisprudence.

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