Disability claim is not forfeited if the seafarer was prevented by the employer from submitting himself to a post-employment medical examination. This comes as an exception to the reportorial requirement.
De Andres vs. Diamon H Marine Services & Shipping Agency, Inc., et al.
G.R. No. 217345, July 12, 2017
Wilmer De Andres (De Andres) was hired by respondent agency Diamond H Marine Services & Shipping Agency, Inc. (Diamond H) for and in behalf of its Taiwanese principal, Wu Chun Hua. He entered into an Employment Contract, wherein it was stipulated that he would be working in the fishing vessel, Yi Man En No. 2 and that the duration of the contract was for two years.
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At the vessel, he was tasked to work as a wiper, messman and bosun, and was also required to throw the fishnet, dive in the sea, and repair the nets. De Andres added that he and his Filipino crewmates were made to work for almost twenty-four hours a day.
One evening, De Andres was tasked by the master to lower the nets for the shipping operation. While he was lowering the nets, he was accidentally hit by big waves, which caused him to be thrown out of the vessel together with the fishing nets. While struggling from the big waves, De Andres was pulled by the moving vessel with his left leg entangled by the fishing nets. As a consequence, he sustained an open fracture of the distal tibia and fibula.
De Andres was brought to Keelong Hospital in Taiwan and underwent surgical operation. He suffered leg fracture with active bleeding and bone exposure.
After twenty (20) days of confinement at the Keelong Hospital, De Andres was transferred to the nearest lodge. Later, he was brought to Zueifang Hospital due to pain and swelling over his left leg. Moreover, his exterior fixator had to be readjusted.
De Andres averred that after the operation, he was placed in a dormitory, instead of a hospital. There, he was left alone with no one to assist him in his recovery. He said that he repeatedly asked for repatriation as no one would attend to his needs in Taiwan, but his plea fell on deaf ears.
Almost a year after his accident, De Andres was informed by the respondents that he was free to go home. He was surprised by this decision because he had been requesting for his repatriation since his injury. De Andres later discovered that his repatriation was not due to his medical condition, but due to the expiration of his employment contract.
Before he was repatriated, De Andres was made to sign a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), stipulating that the respondents agreed to pay him NT$40,000.00 and gave him a plane ticket back to the Philippines, and that, in return, he would not file any complaint against the respondents in the future.
De Andres claimed, however, that he was forced to sign the agreement as he would not be able to return to the Philippines if he would not sign it. On February 5, 2010, he arrived in Manila, but no representatives from Diamond H fetched him.
The next working day, De Andres reported to Diamond H where he was met by Ellen Purification (Purification), Operations Manager. He averred that Purification invited him to go to the nearest fast-food restaurant to discuss his predicament. There, she told him that Diamond H would not entertain any claim and that he should find a lawyer instead. De Andres could not believe what he heard from Purification because the company could not simply declare that he had no claim against them.
De Andres filed the subject complaint against the respondents before the LA for permanent and total disability benefits, sickness allowances, salary differentials, labor insurance as provided in the contract, moral damages, exemplary damages, and attorney’s fees.
The LA ruled in favor of De Andres. It explained that even though his contract expired, the respondents still had the obligation to provide medical attention because he suffered permanent and total disability. The LA was of the view that De Andres was forced to sign the MOA so he could be repatriated. Hence, there was no valid quitclaim.
The LA likewise awarded De Andres insurance compensation based on the terms of the employment contract; sickness allowance because the respondents did not pay the same; salary differential due to the smaller amount of salary received in Taiwan; and 10% attorney’s fees.
Aggrieved, the respondents elevated an appeal to the NLRC.
The NLRC reversed and set aside the LA ruling. It stated that De Andres failed to comply with the mandatory reportorial requirement. The NLRC observed that although he went to Diamond H on the next working day of his repatriation, he did not submit himself to the medical examination of the company-designated physician.
Thus, the NLRC concluded that he was barred from demanding disability benefits. The other awards granted by the LA were also deleted by the NLRC due to insufficient basis.
The CA affirmed the NLRC ruling. It wrote that De Andres indeed failed to comply with the mandatory reportorial requirement. The CA stressed that the failure of the seafarer to report to the company-designated physician within three (3) working days upon return shall forfeit his right to claim any benefit.
It also opined that the MOA, wherein De Andres waived all claims against the respondents, was valid and binding because it was duly explained and notarized by the MECO to him.
De Andres moved for reconsideration, but his motion was denied by the CA. Hence the petition.
Whether or not the failure of the seafarer to undergo post employment medical examination on account of not being referred to by his employer forfeits his disability claim
The SC found the petition meritorious.
Section 20 (B) (3) of the 2000 Amended POEA Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers On-Board Ocean-Going Vessels (Section 20 (B) (3)), which was incorporated in the POEA-SEC, lays down the procedure to be followed by a seafarer in claiming disability benefits.
The SC held that the seafarer shall submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three working days upon his return except when he is physically incapacitated to do so, in which case, a written notice to the agency within the same period is deemed as compliance. Failure of the seafarer to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement shall result in his forfeiture of the right to claim the above benefits.
The rationale for mandatory reporting requirement is that reporting the illness or injury by the seafarer within three (3) working days from repatriation fairly makes it easier for a physician to determine the cause of the illness or injury. Ascertaining the real cause of the illness or injury beyond the period may prove difficult.
To ignore the rule might set a precedent with negative repercussions, like opening floodgates to a limitless number of seafarers claiming disability benefits, or causing unfairness to the employer who would have difficulty determining the cause of a claimant’s illness because of the passage of time. The employer would then have no protection against unrelated disability claims
The provision mandated a period of three (3) working days within which the seafarer should report so that the company-designated physician can promptly arrive at a medical diagnosis. It must be underscored that the company-designated physician has either 120 or 240 days, depending on the circumstances, within which to complete the medical assessment of the seafarer; otherwise, the disability claim shall be granted.
Due to the express mandate on the reportorial requirement, the failure of the seafarer to comply with the same shall result in the forfeiture of his right to claim the above benefits.
Nevertheless, while the requirement to report within three (3) working days from repatriation appears to be indispensable in character, there are some established exceptions to this rule.
Section 20 (B) (3) expressly provides that a seafarer is not required to submit himself to post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three (3) working days from repatriation when he is physically incapacitated to do so. In such event, a written notice to the agency within the same period is deemed as compliance.
Another exception is when the seafarer failed to timely submit himself to post-employment medical examination due to the employer’s fault. In lnterorient Maritime Enterprises, Inc. vs. Remo (lnterorient), the Court recognized and addressed the unscrupulous practice of employers of deliberately or inadvertently refusing to refer the seafarer to the company-designated physician to deny his disability claim. The Court further held in Interorient that the absence of post-employment medical examination should not be taken against the seafarer because the employer declined to provide the same.
In Apines vs. Elburg Shipmanagement Philippines, Inc. (Apines), the Court emphasized that the employer, and not the seafarer, has the burden to prove that the seafarer was referred to a company-designated doctor. It was also stated that without the assessment of the said doctor, there was nothing for the seafarer’s own physician to contest, rendering the requirement of referral to a third doctor superfluous. The seafarer therein was granted total and permanent disability benefits.
The SC recapitulated the rule as follows:
A seafarer claiming disability benefits is required to submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three (3) working days from repatriation. Failure to comply with such requirement results in the forfeiture of the seafarer’s claim for disability benefits. There are, however, exceptions to the rule: (1) when the seafarer is incapacitated to report to the employer upon his repatriation; and (2) when the employer inadvertently or deliberately refused to submit the seafarer to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician.
The fact that De Andres reported to Diamond H on the next working day from his repatriation and met Purification show that he was sincere in asserting his claim against the respondents for disability benefits. Before he could even commence the procedure laid down under Section 20 (B) (3), however, Purification pre-empted him and bluntly told him that Diamond H would not entertain any of his claims and that he should find a lawyer instead. Thus, De Andres was no longer given an opportunity to submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician.
The exception to the reportorial requirement applies in this case because the seafarer was prevented by the employer from submitting himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician. Thus, the disability claim of De Andres is not forfeited.