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Almirante: Seafarer’s disability benefits

Almirante: Seafarer’s disability benefits
Dominador A. Almirante, 10 September 2021

PETITIONER Abner P. Salonga was hired by respondents Solvang Philippines Inc. and/or Solvang Maritime AS as chief steward under the contract of employment dated April 3, 2012. After having been found fit to work, he joined the vessel m/v Clipper Hebe on May 15, 2012. In July 2012 while carrying the newly issued provisions on board, he suddenly felt pain on his neck and back. Due to the unbearable pain, he requested to be medically repatriated.

On Jan. 12, 2013, petitioner arrived in the Philippines and immediately reported to respondents’ office the next day. He was referred to the Metropolitan Medical Center where he underwent a series of medical examinations. The examinations showed that he was suffering from: (1) vervical spondylosis; (2) broad-based disc-osteophyte complexes and facet/ligamentous Hypertrophy at L4-5 and L5-S1, with moderate bilateral foraminal narrowing; and (3) mild L2-3 and L3-4 disc bulges and mild ligamentum flavum and facet hypertrophy. The company-designated physician refused to issue him a disability assessment and no declaration was ever issued as to his fitness to work. In July 2013, despite the fact that he was still suffering from a lumbar and spine injury, petitioner was told by the company-designated physician that his medical assistance was discontinued by respondents.

In a complaint for total permanent disability filed by petitioner, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) ruled in his favor by awarding him the amount of US$60,000. The Court of Appeals (CA) set aside the ruling of the NLRC and held that petitioner’s condition falls under the disability ratings of Grade 8 (trunk) and Grade 12 (cervical) for the total amount of $22,020. The CA disagreed with both the Labor Arbiter (LA) and the NLRC when they held that petitioner is entitled to total and permanent disability benefits on account of the failure of the company-designated physician to issue an assessment of petitioner’s disability within 120 days from the time petitioner reported to respondents.

Does the CA err?

Ruling: Yes.

The following requisites must be met in determining the seafarer’s condition: (1) the assessment must be issued within the period of 120 or 240 days, as the case may be, from the time the seafarer reported to the employer upon repatriation; and (2) the assessment must be final and definitive.

The primordial consideration is whether the medical assessment ·or report of the company-designated physician was complete and appropriately issued within the 120 or 240-day period, as the case may be; otherwise, the medical report must be set aside. A final and definitive disability assessment is important in order to truly reflect the extent of the illness of the seafarer and his or her capacity to resume work as such. To be conclusive, the medical assessments or reports should be complete and definite to afford the appropriate disability benefits to seafarers. There must also be sufficient bases to support the assessment.

In Kestrel Shipping Co. Inc., et al. v. Munar, 702 Phil. 717 (2013), the Court elucidated that the company-designated doctor is required to arrive at a definite assessment of the seafarer’s fitness to work or permanent disability, within the period of 120 or 240 days. Should the company doctor fail to do so and the seafarer’s medical condition remains unresolved, the seafarer shall be deemed totally and permanently disabled.

In this case, petitioner immediately reported to respondents’ office on Jan. 13, 2013 after disembarking from the vessel on Jan. 12, 2013. The 120th day from Jan. 13, 2013 being May 13, 2013, Dr. Chuasuan was required to arrive at a definite assessment of petitioner’s fitness to work or disability on or before May 13, 2013. However, Dr. Chuasuan issued his alleged final assessment only on May 23, 2013 without giving any justification why petitioner’s diagnosis and treatment extended beyond the 120-day period. Having established that Dr. Chuasuan failed to issue a final disability assessment of petitioner within the time frame required by law, his disability was indeed rendered permanent and total by operation of law. (Abner P. Salonga vs. Solvang Philippines Inc., et al., G.R. 229451, Feb. 10, 2021).