Death of the seafarer to be compensable must be work-related and must happen during the term of the employment contract.
Alma Covita vs. SSM Maritime Services, Inc.
G.R. No. 206600, December 7, 2016
Rolando Covita (Rolando), Petitioner Alma Covita’s (Alma) husband, entered into a contract of employment with private respondent SSSM Maritime Services, Inc., acting for and in behalf of its foreign principal, Maritime Fleet Services Pte. Ltd. to work on board MIT Salviceroy as Bosun for a period of eight (8) months.
As a condition for employment, Rolando underwent a standard Pre-employment Medical Examination (PEME) where he was declared fit for sea duty, and boarded his vessel of assignment. However, Rolando developed weakness of both lower extremities and was vomiting. Thus, he was confined at the Singapore General Hospital where he was diagnosed to be suffering from end stage renal failure.
On May 23, 2009, he was medically repatriated to the Philippines. He was admitted at the Manila Doctor’s Hospital where he was diagnosed by Dr. Nicomedes G. Cruz, the company-designated physician, with chronic renal failure. Later, Dr. Cruz issued a Certification that Rolando’s chronic renal failure was not work-related. Rolando died on September 20, 2009.
Alma filed with the Labor Arbiter (LA) a Complaint for death benefits, allowance for two minor children, burial allowance, moral and exemplary damages, legal interest and attorney’s fees. Alma contended that her husband’s chronic renal failure was work-connected because one of its causes is high blood pressure. According to her, Rolando’s work on board the vessel was characterized by stress, among others, which caused his high blood pressure and, in effect, damaged the small blood vessels in his kidneys. His kidneys cannot filter wastes from the blood and ultimately failed to function.
SSM, et al. denied the claims alleging that Rolando died of a sickness which was not work-related. They claim that he was repatriated due to chronic renal failure, an illness which developed over a period of years and had nothing to do with his one week employment on board MIT Salviceroy.
The LA ruled in favor of Alma.
The LA found that while Rolando died after the term of his contract, such will not militate against Alma’s claim for death benefits as the underlying cause of Rolando’s death was the illness that manifested during the effectivity of their contract. Thus, the requirement that the death or cause thereof must have occurred during the term of the contract had been met.
As to work connection/aggravation, the LA ruled that SSM, et al. did not offer proof to dispute the allegation that prior to his last contract that caused his medical repatriation, Rolando had been contracted for the same position and rendered shipboard services for SSM, et al. and that every time he was contracted, his PEME showed that he was fit for sea duty. Alma had adequately proven that Rolando’s working conditions on board the vessel contributed, if not caused, his subsequent illness.
SSM appealed to the NLRC.
The NLRC agreed with the findings of the company-designated physician that Rolando’s illness which led to his demise was not work-related. It found that Rolando joined MIT Salviceroy he was confined at the Singapore General Hospital where he was diagnosed with end stage renal failure which could not have developed over a one week period. Hence, not work-related. While his PEME showed him fit to work it was not a conclusive proof that he was free from any ailment prior to his deployment.
Alma’s motion for reconsideration was denied. Thus, SSM filed a petition for certiorari with the CA.
The CA issued its assailed Decision which denied the petition and affirmed the NLRC as there was no substantial evidence to prove that the illness which caused Rolando’s death was contracted during the term of his contract with SSM, et al. or was work-related.
Alma’s motion for reconsideration was denied. Dissatisfied, Alma filed the instant petition for review on certiorari.
Whether or not death of a seafarer that occurred after his contract can be considered work-related if his PEME indicated he was fit for sea duty
The SC did not find merit in the petition.
To be entitled for death compensation and benefits from the employer, the death of the seafarer (1) must be work-related; and (2) must happen during the term of the employment contract. While the 2000 POEA-SEC does not expressly define what a “work-related death” means, it is palpable from Part A (4) as above-cited that the said term refers to the seafarer’s death resulting from a work-related injury or illness.
A work-related illness is defined under the POEA Standard Employment Contract as any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of this contract with the conditions set therein satisfied, to wit: (1) The seafarer’s work must involve the risks described herein; (2) The disease was contracted as a result of the seafarer’s exposure to the described risks; (3) The disease was contracted within a period of exposure and under such other factors necessary to contract it; and (4) There was no notorious negligence on the part of the seafarer.
It is also provided under Section 20B(4) of the same contract that illnesses not listed in Section 32-A are disputably presumed work-related. However, Section 20 should be read together with the conditions specified by Section 32-A for an illness to be compensable.
Alma cannot just contend that while her husband’s chronic renal failure is not listed as an occupational disease, it is disputably presumed work-related, and it is for SSM, et al. to overcome such presumption. Alma still has to prove her claim for death compensation with substantial evidence or such amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion.
Citing Quizora vs. Denholm Crew Management (Phils.), Inc. the SC ruled that the disputable presumption provision in Section 20(B) does not allow claimant to just sit down and wait for company to present evidence to overcome the disputable presumption of work-relatedness of the illness. Contrary to such position, claimant still has to substantiate his claim in order to be entitled to disability compensation. He has to prove that the illness he suffered was work-related and that it must have existed during the term of his employment contract. He cannot simply argue that the burden of proof belongs to company.
Alma’s allegations to prove the work-relatedness of her husband’s chronic renal failure are mere general statements with no supporting documents or medical records. She failed to show the nature of Rolando’s work as a Bosun on board the vessel since there was no specific description of Rolando’s daily tasks or his working conditions which could have caused or aggravated his illness. Her claim that Rolando’s working conditions were characterized by stress, heavy workload and overfatigue were mere self-serving allegations which are not established by any evidence on record. In fact, Alma alleged that one of the main causes of kidney failure is high blood pressure due to stress, however, there was nothing on record to show that Rolando was suffering from high blood pressure during his seven day’s employment in the vessel. Bare allegations do not suffice to discharge the required quantum of proof of compensability. The beneficiaries must present evidence to prove a positive proposition.
Mere allegation that the strenuous demands of Rolando’s shipboard duties were the cause of his illness and nothing more, is not sufficient to declare that the same is work-related or work-aggravated. It is settled that probability of work-connection must at least be anchored on credible information and not on self-serving allegations. Indeed, Alma cannot simply allege without adequate proof that Rolando’s working conditions had caused the latter’s illness or aggravated the same.
Rolando was only on board the vessel for seven days when he was diagnosed with chronic renal failure which is a progressive deterioration of the kidney function which happens over a period of time, therefore, it cannot be absolutely declared that he developed such illness during that short period in SSM, et al.’s vessel.
Rolando was medically repatriated on May 23, 2009 and died on September 20, 2009. It is provided under Section 1SB(1) of the POEA Standard Employment Contract that the employment of the seafarer is terminated when he arrives at the point of hire and signs off and is disembarked for medical reasons. Hence, when Rolando was medically repatriated on May 23, 2009, his contract of employment with SSM, et al. was effectively terminated. Considering that Rolando’s death did not occur during the term of his employment contract and not work-related, his death is not compensable.
While it is true that the pre-existence of an illness does not irrevocably bar compensability because disability laws still grant the same provided the seafarer’s working conditions bear causal connection with his illness, these rules, however, cannot be asserted perfunctorily by the claimant as it is incumbent upon him to prove, by substantial evidence, as to how and why the nature of his work and working conditions contributed to and/or aggravated his illness. Rolando was only on board the vessel for seven days and there was no substantial evidence to prove how his job as a bosun or his working conditions had aggravated his illness which caused his death.
The PEME declaring Rolando to be fit for sea duty could not have disclosed his actual health condition as the examinations were not exploratory. The PEME is not exploratory and does not allow the employer to discover any and all pre-existing medical condition with which the seafarer is suffering and for which he may be presently taking medication. The PEME is nothing more than a summary examination of the seafarer’s physiological condition. The “fit to work” declaration in the PEME cannot be a conclusive proof to show that one is free from any ailment prior to his deployment. Citing Masangcay vs. Trans Global Maritime Agency lnc., the decrease of GFR, which is an indicator of chronic renal failure, is measured thru the renal function test, and in pre-employment examination, the urine analysis (urinalysis), which is normally included, measures only the creatinine, the presence of which cannot conclusively indicate chronic renal failure.