Case Digest: Escarcha, et al. v. Leonis Navigation & World Marine Panama

G.R. No. 182740 : July 5, 2010




Eduardo S. Escarcha entered into a one-year contract of employment with respondents. Sometime in April 1999 (or roughly a month after coming on board), Eduardo became ill while M.V. Diamond Glory was on its way to New Orleans. Eduardos condition worsened despite medical attention, and he became comatose. The attending physician, Dr. James R. Patterson (Dr. Patterson), found Eduardo to be suffering from advanced mycobacterium tuberculosis, advanced Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) disease, cardiac dysrhythmias, and anemia. Dr. Pattersons discharge summary also stated that Eduardos Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was under treatment. Eduardo was repatriated to the Philippines. Despite continued treatment, Eduardo died on June 9, 2001 (approximately two years after repatriation). At the time of his death, Eduardo left behind his wife Lydia, and their three children.

The petitioners demanded the payment of death benefits from the respondents which refused to grant the demand. Labor Arbiter Jose G. de Vera (LA de Vera) dismissed the petitioners complaint. He held that Eduardos illness was pre-existing; Eduardo was already afflicted with HIV when he boarded the respondents vessel. LA de Vera noted that Eduardo admitted to Nigel Griffiths (Griffiths), a foreign nurse, that he had concealed his condition from the respondents.

The NLRC set aside LA de Veras decision and ordered the respondents to pay death benefits to Eduardos wife, Lydia, and to each of their three children.

The respondents filed a petition for certiorari before the CA. The CA reversed and set aside the NLRC resolutions. According to the CA, death arising from a pre-existing illness is not compensable. Although Eduardo was pronounced fit to work after undergoing the PEME, the CA declared the PEME result unreliable to determine a persons real state of health because a PEME is not exploratory. Thus, the CA held that the petitioners cannot be compensated for Eduardos death because the latter did not disclose that he was already afflicted with HIV when he applied for the position of first engineer. Moreover, the petitioners failed to show a reasonable connection between Eduardos work and his sickness, or that the working conditions increased the risk of contracting the disease.

ISSUE: Whether or not petitioners are entitled to death benefits for the death of Eduardo?

HELD: Court of Appeals decision is sustained.

LABOR LAW: death benefits

In the present case, Eduardo was repatriated for medical reasons; he arrived in the Philippines on June 17, 1999, to undergo further evaluation and treatment after being diagnosed with advanced mycobacterium tuberculosis, advanced HIV disease, cardiac dysrhythmias, and anemia. Eduardos employment was therefore terminated upon his repatriation on June 17, 1999. Thus, when Eduardo died on June 9, 2001, approximately two (2) years after his repatriation, his employment with the respondents had long been terminated. As we held in Prudential Shipping and Management Corporation v. Sta. Rita:

The death of a seaman during the term of employment makes the employer liable to his heirs for death compensation benefits. Once it is established that the seaman died during the effectivity of his employment contract, the employer is liable. However, if the seaman dies after the termination of his contract of employment, his beneficiaries are not entitled to the death benefits enumerated above.

Pneumonia, the immediate cause of Eduardos death, is listed under the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Labor Code (ECC Rules) as an occupational disease. But for a disability or death from this cause to be compensable, all the following conditions must be satisfied:
(1) The [seafarers] work must involve the risks described herein;
(2) The disease was contracted as a result of the [seafarers] 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].
Pulmonary Tuberculosis was listed as one of the antecedent causes of Eduardos death, i.e., it was a condition that led to or precipitated the immediate cause of his death, as recorded in the death certificate. Related to pneumonia as the immediate cause of death, this means that Eduardos pneumonia directly sprang from and was directly linked and traceable to pulmonary tuberculosis, that in turn traced itself to AIDS. Parenthetically, tuberculosis is listed under the ECC Rules and the POEA-SEC as an occupational disease. Eduardo, however, was not engaged in any of the occupations where tuberculosis is a listed illness. Moreover, no evidence on record shows how Eduardos working conditions brought on or aggravated the tuberculosis that became the antecedent cause of his death two years after repatriation.

An underlying cause is defined by the World Health Organization as the disease or injury that initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence that produced the fatal injury.AIDS, described in Eduardos death certificate as the underlying cause of death, is a human disease characterized by a marked decrease of helper-induced T-lymphocyte cells, resulting in a general breakdown of the bodys immune system. In simpler terms, it is a disease that attacks a persons immune system, leaving it so damaged that certain diseases (opportunistic infections) or cancers develop. AIDS is the final and most serious stage of HIV infection, and it takes time for HIV to progress to AIDS.

According to the Merck Manual of Medical Information, the virus that causes AIDS can only be transmitted in the following ways: (a) sexual relation with an infected person; (b) injection or infusion of contaminated blood; and (c) transfer of the virus from an infected mother to a child before or during birth. HIV is not transmitted by casual contact or even by close, nonsexual contact at work, school or home. No contact of HIV transmission has been traced to the coughing or sneezing of an infected person or to a mosquito bite.

Opportunistic infections that develop with AIDS are infections by organisms that do not cause disease in people with healthy immune systems. Both the HIV infection and the opportunistic infections and cancers produce the symptoms of AIDS.

Pneumoniacaused by the fungus Pneumocystis carinii is a common and recurring opportunistic infection in people with AIDS, and is the first opportunistic infection to develop. Tuberculosis is more frequent and deadlier in people who have HIV infection than in those who do not, and is difficult to treat if the strain of the tuberculosis is resistant to antibiotics. Another mycobacterium,Mycobacterium avium complex, is a common cause of fever, weight loss, and diarrhea in people with the advanced disease.

AIDS is not listed as an occupational disease both under the POEA-SEC and the ECC Rules. Thus, the claimant bears the burden of reasonably proving the relationship between the work of the deceased and AIDS, or that the risk of contracting AIDS was increased by the working conditions of the deceased.

In the present case, we do not find Eduardos AIDS to have been work-related. Records have shown that it was a pre-existing illness that Eduardo did not disclose during his PEME with the respondents medical testing center.

The respondents testing center did not test for HIV, and Eduardo did not disclose his HIV positive condition. Under these circumstances, a PEME cannot lead to the conclusion that Eduardo was HIV-free when he boarded the respondents vessel and acquired his HIV/AIDS only while on board the vessel. We have had occasion to recognize in the past that a PEME, in the way it is conducted in the maritime industry, is generally not exploratory in nature, nor is it a totally in-depth and thorough examination of an applicants medical condition. The PEME, usually cursorily made, determines whether one is "fit to work" at sea or "fit for sea service"; it does not reveal the real state of health of an applicant. In the present case, the worthlessness of the respondents PEME for AIDS determination purposes is hardly disputable.