Case Digest: Coastal Safeway Marine v. Esguerra

G.R. No. 185352: August 10, 2011




Elmer T. Esguerra (Esguerra) was hired by Coastal Safeway Marine Services, Inc. (CSMSI) sometime in 2003 as Third Mate for the M/V Mr. Nelson, an ocean-going vessel under the flag of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) owned by its foreign principal, Canada & Middle East General Trading (CMEGT). Subject to the provisions of the POEA-SEC, the contract of employment executed by the parties on 9 May 2003 provided a term of one (1) year and a basic monthly salary of US$800.00 for a 48-hour work-week, with provisions for overtime pay and vacation leave with pay.Rather than the aforesaid vessel, however, it appears that, on 13 May 2003, Esguerra, as Second Officer, eventually boarded the vessel M/V Gondwana which was likewise manned by CSMSI on behalf of Nabeel Shipmanagement Ltd. Fze. (NSLF).

On 28 June 2003 or after forty six (46) days of shipboard employment, Esguerra requested medical attention for back and chest pains while M/V Gondwana was docked at Port Jebel Ali, UAE. Examined on 5 July 2003 at the Jebel Ali Medical Centre, Esguerra was declared "not fit for work until complete cardiac evaluation is done" and "advised to rest until then" by Dr. Zarga S. Tulmar. Thereafter, Esguerra insisted on going home on the ground that he had been rendered unfit for work. Alleging that he had yet to receive his salary for June 2003 and that his employer was making him shoulder his repatriation expenses as a consequence of his failure to finish his contract, Esguerra also sought assistance from the Jebel Ali police/coastguard regarding his predicament.Subsequent to his arrival in the Philippines on 7 July 2003, Esguerra went to the Philippine Heart Center (PHC), the Philippine Orthopedic Hospital (POH) and the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) for medical evaluation and treatment.

On 16 July 2003, Esguerra filed against CSMSI, its president, Benedicto C. Morcilla (Morcilla), and CMEGT, the complaint for medical reimbursement, sickness allowance, permanent disability benefits, damages and attorney fees before the arbitral level of the NLRC. Subsequent to the filing of said complaint, Dr. Vicaldo and Dr. Saguin of the PGH issued separate medical certificates both declaring Esguerra unfit for work.

In refutation, CSMSI, Morcilla and CMEGT averred that the tests administered on Esguerra at the Jebel Ali Medical Centre revealed that he was in good health; and, that disregarding the finding that he continued to be fit for work, Esguerra insisted on his repatriation and filed his complaint without submitting himself to a post-employment medical examination within three (3) working days upon his return.

The Labor Arbiter, as affirmed by the NLRC, dismissed the complaint on the ground that Esguerra failed to prove his disability and to submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician, pursuant to Section 20-B of the POEA SEC.

Through a petition for certiorari with the CA, Esguerra received a favorable decision. The CA reversed the NLRC ruling and CSMSI subsequent motion for reconsideration was denied. Hence, this petition.


Whether or not the Court of Appeals misappreciated the evidence and applied the POEA Standard Employment Contract of 1996 instead of the Revised Terms and Conditions for Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going vessels, which is part and parcel of the Contract of Employment entered into between Esguerra and the petitioner on May 9, 2003?

HELD: The petition is impressed with merit.

Viewed in light of the fact that Esguerra contract of employment was executed on 9 May 2003, CSMSI correctly faults the CA for applying POEA Memorandum Circular No. 055-96 instead of the 2000 POEA-SEC which took effect on 25 June 2000. Deemed written in the seafarer's contract of employment,the 2000 POEA-SEC like its predecessor was designed primarily for the protection and benefit of Filipino seamen in the pursuit of their employment on board ocean-going vessels.ection 20-B (3) thereof has been interpreted to mean that it is the company-designated physician who is entrusted with the task of assessing the seaman's disability,whether total or partial, due to either injury or illness, during the term of the latter's employment.

Concededly, this does not mean that the assessment of said physician is final, binding or conclusive on the claimant, the labor tribunal or the courts. Should he be so minded, the seafarer has the prerogative to request a second opinion and to consult a physician of his choiceregarding his ailment or injury, in which case the medical report issued by the latter shall be evaluated by the labor tribunal and the court, based on its inherent merit.For the seaman claim to prosper, however, it is mandatory that he should be examined by a company-designated physician within three days from his repatriation.Failure to comply with this mandatory reporting requirement without justifiable cause shall result in forfeiture of the right to claim the compensation and disability benefits provided under the POEA-SEC.

There is no dispute regarding the fact that Esguerra had altogether failed to comply with the above-discussed mandatory reporting requirement. Beyond his bare assertion, however, that CSMSI "never gave him referrals to continue his medications as recommended by the foreign doctor" despite his call on 8 July 2003 "to inform them that he will report the next day in order to submit his medical evaluation abroad," Esguerra did not present any evidence to prove justification for his inability to submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician. If a written notice is required of a seafarer who is physically incapacitated for purposes of compliance with said requirement, the Court fails to see why a more tangible proof should not likewise be expected of Esguerra who, after his arrival on 7 July 2003, appears to have been well enough to consult with Dr. Vicaldo and Dr. Saguin on 9 July 2003.

Esguerra compliance with the mandatory reporting requirement under the POEA-SEC was made even more imperative by the fact that his repatriation for medical reasons was categorically disputed by CSMSI. Consistent with the 5 July 2003 diagnosis made by Dr. Tulmar at the Jebel Ali Medical Centre declaring him "not fit for work until complete cardiac evaluation is done" and advising him "to rest until then," it appears that Esguerra underwent serology, hematology, biochemistry and x-ray diagnostic tests which yielded no significant findings relative to the back and chest pains he claims to have suffered.Although the 5 July 2003 notation made on the M/V Gondwana Chief Officer Logbook states that he was "advised to be repatriated" on the same day and "to continue his medication in the Philippines," no less than Esguerra himself confirmed in his 6 July 2003 letter to the Jebel Ali police/coastguard that he had yet to undergo a compete cardiac evaluation and that CSMSI foreign principal, NSLF, had refused to shoulder his repatriation expenses on the ground that he was unable to finish his contract.

Quite significantly, Esguerra also filed his complaint on 16 July 2003, before his impediment rating was definitively assessed by either Dr. Vicaldo or Dr. Saguin. Perusal of the record further shows that, by and of themselves, the medical certifications upon which Esguerra anchored his claims for disability benefits and sickness allowance were not supported by such diagnostic tests and/or procedures as would adequately refute the normal results of those administered to him at the Jebel Ali Medical Centre.

Granted that strict rules of evidence are not applicable in claims for compensation and mere probability and not the ultimate degree of certainty is regarded as the touchstone or test of proof in compensation proceedings, it cannot be gainsaid that awards of compensation cannot rest in speculations or presumptions. In the absence of showing of adequate tests and reasonable findings to support the same, the divergent Impediment Grades assessed by Dr. Vicaldo and Dr. Saguin cannot be expediently taken at face value. In Magsaysay Maritime Corporation vs. Velasquez,this Court significantly brushed aside the evidentiary value of a recommendation made by Dr. Vicaldo which was likewise "based on a single medical report which outlined the alleged findings and medical history" of the claimant-seafarer. In Montoya vs. Transmed Manila Corporation, a similar fate was dealt the same doctor's plain statement of the supposed work-relation/work-aggravation of a seafarer's ailment which was "not supported by any reason or proof submitted together with the assessment or in the course of the arbitration."