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‘Personal comfort’ doctrine and compensability of injuries during recreational activities

‘Personal comfort’ doctrine and compensability of injuries during recreational activities
ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO | March 23,2021

A seafarer’s injury during any recreational activity such as a videoke session is compensable under the “personal comfort” doctrine.

The Supreme Court utilized this legal paradigm in the recent case of John Oscares vs. Magsaysay Maritime Corp. (G.R. No. 245858 December 2, 2020) in awarding disability benefits to the injured seafarer.

While the vessel was anchored in Panama, the seafarer was singing in front of a videoke machine together with another crew member when he slipped and fell out of balance. As a result, he suffered major knee injuries.

Upon his repatriation to the Philippines, the seafarer underwent surgery followed by physical rehabilitation wherein he shouldered the cost. When he claimed for disability benefits, the company denied liability arguing that his knee injuries are not compensable since the incident is not work related. He was not hired to sing on board so it cannot be said that his injury was incidental to his employment. His act of singing while jumping has no relation to his duties as second assistant engineer. It was a purely personal and social function.

In order for a seafarer’s injury to be compensated, it must be shown that: (1) the injury or illness must be work-related; and (2) the work-related injury or illness must have existed during the term of the seafarer’s employment contract.

A work-related injury is defined as one arising out of and in the course of employment.

In the case of Luzon Stevedoring Corp. vs. WCC (193 Phil. 91), the Supreme Court held that “acts reasonably necessary to health and comfort of an employee while at work, such as satisfaction of his thirst, hunger, or other physical demands, or protecting himself from excessive cold, are incidental to the employment and injuries sustained in the performance of such acts are compensable as arising out of and in the course of employment.”

The Supreme Court awarded disability benefits to the seafarer using the “personal comfort” doctrine where acts of personal ministration for the comfort or convenience of the employee or necessary to his physical well-being is an incident of employment.

The company argued that the personal comfort doctrine is not applicable since it only covers acts which are related to one’s personal comfort for a brief momentary period, such as using the restroom. The seafarer’s act of singing while jumping is not included, is a purely personal and social function, and is not incidental to his work.

However, the Supreme Court pointed out that the seafarer’s act of singing can be considered necessary to his health and comfort while on board the vessel. He incurred his injury while he was performing this act. Music plays a special role on Filipino seafarers’ life, whether at sea or on land. It is an understatement to say that karaoke is a central part of pop culture of Filipinos, including seafarers whether on board or in between contracts.

The seafarer neither willfully injured himself nor acted with notorious negligence. Notorious negligence is defined as something more than mere or simple negligence or contributory negligence; it signifies a deliberate act of the employee to disregard his own personal safety.

Jumping while singing cannot be considered as a reckless or deliberate act that is unmindful of one’s safety. There is nothing inherently dangerous about jumping while singing. The company did not allege that the seafarer intentionally injured himself or was negligent. He simply lost his balance.

Accordingly, the seafarer’s injury is compensable. While inside the vessel for several months, a seafarer is exposed to extreme weather conditions and rough seas as well as physical and psychological stress due to his job, lack of sleep, heat stress, emergency works and homesickness for being away from his family. These can have potentially disastrous consequences in terms of reduced performance as well as poor physical and mental health.

Recreation is an important consideration for the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC2006). Each member state shall ensure that ships that fly its flag provide and maintain decent recreational facilities, amenities and services, as adapted to meet the special needs of seafarers who must live and work on ships, consistent with promoting the seafarers’ health and well-being.

Recreational facilities and services should be reviewed frequently to ensure that they are appropriate in the light of changes in the needs of seafarers resulting from technical, operational and other developments in the shipping industry.

Some of the facilities that should be included at no cost to the seafarer, where practicable are (a) sports equipment including exercise equipment, table games and deck games; (b) electronic equipment such as a radio, television, personal computer and cassette recorder/player; and (c) bars on board for seafarers.