Third doctor must be referred to by the seafarer to address the conflicting assessments in accordance with the mandated procedure. Failure to observe the procedure will make the company-designated physician’s assessment final and binding.
Thus, the Supreme Court held in the August 14, 2017 case as follows:
North Sea Marine Services Corporation vs. Enriquez
G.R. No. 201806, August 14, 2017
Petitioner North Sea Marine Services Corporation (North Sea Marine), for and on behalf of its foreign principal, North Sea Marine Carnival Cruise Lines, entered into a Contract of Employment with Respondent Santiago S. Enriquez (Enriquez) for a period of six months as Assistant Plumber for the vessel MS Carnival Triumph.
While in the performance of his duties, Enriquez experienced nape pains that radiated to his upper back. The ship doctor diagnosed him to be suffering from mechanical back pains and prescribed him with medicines. However, due to the worsening of his back pains, he was medically repatriated on October 5, 2008.
Upon arrival in Manila on October 7, 2008, Enriquez was immediately referred to the company-designated physician, Dr. John Rabago (Dr. Rabago), at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center. An orthopedic specialist recommended Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of Enriquez’s cervical spine, which test revealed that he was suffering from Cervical Spondylosis with Thickening of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament from C2-3 to C5-6; Mild Disc Bulging from C3-4 to T2-E; and Superimposed Left Paracentral Disc Protrusion at C5-6.
During his confinement at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center, Enriquez underwent Anterior Disectomy, Spinal fusion C5-C6 Ciliac Bone Graft, and Anterior Plating. After his discharge from the hospital, Enriquez continuously reported to the orthopedic surgeon for medical treatment and evaluation. He was also referred to a physiatrist to undergo physical therapy.
In a Medical Report dated December 17, 2008, Dr. Rabago declared Enriquez fit to resume sea duties, with the conformity of both the orthopedic surgeon and the physiatrist. Enriquez thereafter signed a Certificate of Fitness to Work, releasing North Sea Marines from all liabilities.
On February 25, 2009, Enriquez consulted an independent orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Venancio P. Garduce, Jr. (Dr. Garduce), of the UP-PGH Medical Center, who certified his unfitness to work as a seaman.
Enriquez filed a Complaint with the NLRC seeking to recover permanent disability compensation in the amount of US$80,000.00 under the International Transport Workers’ Federation Cruise Ship Collective Bargaining Agreement (ITF Cruise Ship CBA), balance of sick wages for two months, moral and exemplary damages, and attorney’s fees.
Enriquez claimed that despite the lapse of 120 days and medical attention given to him by the company-designated physician, his condition did not improve, as attested by the medical findings of his own physician Dr. Garduce.
North Sea Marines, on the other hand, disclaimed Enriquez’s entitlement to any disability benefit since he was declared fit to work by Dr. Rabago, as attested by both the orthopedic surgeon and physiatrist. North Sea Marines asserted that the fit-to-work assessment of the company-designated physician deserved utmost credibility because it was rendered after extensive monitoring and treatment of Enriquez’s condition by a team of specialists, and it contained a detailed explanation of the progress in Enriquez’s condition.
North Sea Marines also asserted that there was no proof that Enriquez’s employment was covered by a CBA or that his injury was caused by an accident as to fall under the CBA provisions. Moreover, North Sea Marines insisted that Enriquez had executed a Certificate of Fitness to Work, releasing North Sea Marines from any obligation in relation to his employment.
The Labor Arbiter denied Enriquez’s claim for disability benefits.
The Labor Arbiter found credence in Dr. Rabago’s fit to work assessment, which was buttressed by the findings specialists, was arrived at after careful and accurate evaluation of Enriquez’s condition, and well-substantiated by the medical records.
The Labor Arbiter disregarded the ITF Cruise Ship Model CBA presented by Enriquez for lack of proof that North Sea Marines were parties to such agreement. Further, there was no evidence that Enriquez’s illness resulted from an accident.
Records show that only Enriquez appealed from the Decision of the Labor Arbiter. North Sea Marines did not appeal but instead filed an Opposition to Complainant’s Request for Payment of Financial Assistance.
The NLRC found Enriquez’s appeal meritorious.
The NLRC gave more weight to the medical certificate of Dr. Garduce which declared Enriquez unfit to resume sea duties since North Sea Marines never redeployed him for work despite the company-designated physician’s assessment of fitness to resume sea duties.
The NLRC ruled that permanent and total disability did not mean a state of absolute helplessness but mere inability to perform usual tasks. The NLRC also held that the Certificate of Fitness is akin to a release or quitclaim, which did not constitute a bar for Enriquez to demand what was legally due him.
The NLRC found that Enriquez’s injury was caused by an accident when his spinal column cracked while lifting some heavy pipes; it thus awarded him total and permanent disability benefits under the ITF Cruise Ship CBA.
North Sea Marines filed a motion for reconsideration on the grounds that the NLRC erred in granting disability benefits under the alleged CBA and in awarding attorney’s fees in the absence of a finding of bad faith. This motion was, however, denied by the NLRC.
North Sea Marines filed a Petition for Certiorari with Application for the Issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction to enjoin the enforcement and execution of the NLRC judgment.
The CA denied North Sea Marines’ prayer for a TRO. The CA subsequently dismissed North Sea Marines’ Petition for Certiorari for lack of merit.
The CA held that while it is the company-designated physician who is tasked under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) to assess the condition of the seafarer, his medical report is not binding and may be disputed by a contrary opinion of another physician.
The CA went on to affirm the NLRC’ s reliance on the medical assessment of Dr. Garduce as it was based not merely on Enriquez’s physical examination but also after considering the medical findings of Dr. Rabago.
North Sea Marines sought reconsideration of this Decision but was denied by the CA.
Whether or not membership with the union was substantially established.
Whether or not the second opinion or medical findings can overthrow the company-designated physician’s findings despite failure of seafarer to refer to a third doctor
The SC did not find merit in the petition.
The SC held that no proof was presented to show that Enriquez’s employment was covered by the CBA.
Enriquez failed to adequately prove that he was entitled to the benefits of an alleged CBA he had presented. The ITF Cruise Ship Agreement For Catering Personnel presented by Enriquez bore no specific details as regards the parties covered thereby, the effectivity or duration thereof, or even the signatures of contracting parties.
Records are bereft of evidence showing that Enriquez’s employment was covered by the supposed CBA or that North Sea Marines had entered into any collective bargaining agreement with any union in which Enriquez was a member.
Enriquez’s entitlement to disability benefits is therefore governed by the POEA-SEC and relevant labor laws which are deemed written in the contract of employment with North Sea Marines.
The SC held that it is clearly provided in the POEA-SEC that in order to claim disability benefits, it is the company-designated physician who must proclaim that the seafarer suffered a permanent disability, whether total or partial, due to either injury or illness, during the term of his employment. If the doctor appointed by the seafarer makes a finding contrary to that of the assessment of the company-designated physician, a third doctor may be agreed jointly between the employer and seafarer whose decision shall be binding on both of them.
Citing Vergara vs. Hammonia Maritime Services, Inc., the SC pronounced that while a seafarer has the right to seek a second and even a third opinion, the final determination of whose decision must prevail must be done in accordance with this agreed procedure. Failure to observe this will make the company-designated physician’s assessment final and binding.
Dr. Rabago, the orthopedic surgeon, and the physiatrist assessed Enriquez fit to resume sea duties. While Dr. Garduce, from whom he sought independent opinion, assessed him to be unfit for sea duties. However, Enriquez did not refer the conflicting assessments to a third doctor in accordance with the mandated procedure.
The SC held that the company-designated physician’s assessment was not effectively disputed; hence, the Court has no option but to declare Dr. Rabago’ s fit to work declaration as final and binding.
The SC finally found Dr. Rabago’s fit to work assessment a reliable diagnosis of Enriquez’s condition and should prevail over Dr. Garduce’s appraisal of Enriquez’s disability. Dr. Rabago’s timely assessment, rendered within 120 days from Enriquez’s repatriation, which was not properly disputed in accordance with an agreed procedure, is considered final and binding.
Labor Code of the Philippines 2018 Edition with Notes and Comments by Atty. Villanueva is now available