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Supreme Court reverses NLRC; grants seafarer $90,000 disability compensation

SC reverses NLRC; grants seafarer $90,000 disability compensation
Rey Panaligan August 17, 2021

The Supreme Court (SC) has reversed the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) as it affirmed the Court of Appeals’ (CA) ruling that ordered the payment of $90,000 (about P4.5 million) in disability compensation to a Filipino seafarer.

Ordered to pay Nelson A. Go’s disability benefits was OSM Maritime Services, Inc. (OSM), a local firm engaged in providing offshore and ship management services worldwide.

In a decision written by the now retired Associate Justice Edgardo L. Delos Santos, the SC dismissed the petition filed by OSM and affirmed the 2018 CA decision in favor of Go.

The SC said in labor disputes, “grave abuse of discretion may be ascribed to the NLRC when its findings and conclusions are not supported by substantial evidence….”

It said the CA was correct in its ruling that granted the appeal of Go since the NLRC “gravely abused its discretion when it held that respondent (Go) was not entitled to full disability compensation of $90,000 and also ruled on the issue of work relation of the illness which was already deemed resolved for failure of petitioners (OSM and its representative Mailyn Perena Borillo) to appeal the decision of the labor arbiter (LA).”

Go had worked with OSM since 2009 as oiler/motorman in ocean-going vessels. His last assignment that started on March 31, 2015 was with M/V Trinity Arrow, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker registered in Panama.

On Dec. 16, 2015, while onboard the tanker, Go “experienced dizziness accompanied by vomiting, chest pain and shortness of breath and his blood pressure elevated to 160/90.”

At a hospital in Singapore, he was diagnosed with sub-acute myocardial infarction with new onset hypertension. He was repatriated on Dec. 22, 2015.

OSM-designated physician examined Go. In a medical certificate dated Jan. 20, 2016, the company physician considered Meniere’s Disease (a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to dizzy spells, vertigo, and hearing loss) part of his diagnosis of Go; declared the disease not work related; and certified Go fit to resume sea duties.

However, when Go was referred to the Maritime Clinic for International Seafarers (MCIS) on June 8, 2016 for his Pre-Employment Medical Examination (PEME), he was found unfit for sea duty due to his Meniere’s Disease.

The MCIS said that Go could not be cleared due to his Meniere’s Disease which is “a disease of unknown cause affecting the membranous labyrinth of the ear, causing progressive deafness and attacks of tinnitus and vertigo which is an UNFIT CASE FOR SEAFARERS.”

Go then consulted a physician of his choice. The physician declared Go’s Meniere’s Disease as “work related and work-aggravated” and Go, as an oiler/motorman “exposed him to loud and deafening engine noises, engine heat and harmful chemicals inherent in engine oils.”

Go’s physician also said that the illnesses “are, therefore, work-related and work-aggravated as the same were caused and had developed due to the nature of his job and in the performance of his duties as a seaman, and he is no longer fit to go back to work as a seaman in any capacity.”

On Go’s complaint, the LA ruled on Dec. 27, 2016 that his “illness is work-related and therefore compensable.” However, the LA only granted him $3,366 plus 10 percent attorney’s fees instead of $90,000.00 since the arbiter ruled that Go “was not permanently and totally incapacitated.”

Go appealed to NLRC which, on Feb. 27, 2017, denied his appeal for lack of merit. The NLRC said, among other things, said that Go’s “Meniere’s Disease is not work-related” and he failed to prove the work relation of the illness. It affirmed, however, the LA’s award of $3,366 for failure of OSM to appeal the ruling on award which became final and executory.

The CA granted Go’s appeal and ordered OSM to pay him $90,000 in disability compensation. OSM and Borillo elevated the case to the SC.

Resolving the petition, the SC said:

“For starters, Meniere’s Disease is described as an incurable disorder of the inner ear which causes severe dizziness, ringing sound in the ears, intermittent hearing loss, and feeling of ear pressure or pain.

“It is undisputed that respondent (Go) suffers from Meniere’s Disease as diagnosed by both the company-designated physician… and respondent’s private physician….

“First of all, respondent failed his PEME because he was found to be unfit for sea duties due to Meniere’s Disease. This means that, ultimately, respondent cannot be given the proper clearance to resume his occupation even if he was found to be fit to work… (company physician).

“Secondly, the medical findings in the PEME regarding respondent’s unfitness to return to work was verified and confirmed by the assessment of… (Go’s physician of choice) when the latter issued his medical certificate.

“According to respondent’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with OSM Maritime Services, Inc., a seafarer who is declared permanently disabled as a result of an occupational injury or an occupational disease, and who is assessed at less than 50 percent permanent disability, but permanently unfit for further service at sea in any capacity, shall also be entitled to a 100 percent compensation.

“It is important to note that it is a fundamental doctrine in labor law that the CBA is the law between the parties and they are obliged to comply with its provisions.

“Moreover, if the terms of a contract, as in a CBA, are clear and leave no doubt upon the intention of the contracting parties, the literal meaning of their stipulations shall control.

“In the instant case, due to the permanent and incurable nature of the Meniere’s Disease which would indefinitely deprive respondent gainful employment and the opportunity to earn therefrom, we resolve to grant respondent the full amount of disability benefits contained in the CBA. Lastly, we resolve to delete the award of attorney’s fees.

“WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Petition is DENIED. The Decision dated Jan. 5, 2018 and the Resolution dated March 14, 2018 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 151145 are AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION. Petitioner OSM Maritime Services, Inc. is ORDERED to PAY respondent Nelson A. Go permanent disability benefits in the amount of $90,000 or its equivalent in Philippine currency at the time of payment. The grant of attorney’s fees is DELETED. SO ORDERED.”