Case Digest: Nazareno v. Maersk Filipinas

G.R. No. 168703 : February 26, 2013




On February 16, 2001, petitioner Ramon G. Nazareno was hired by Maersk Filipinas Crewing Inc. (MCI) as Chief Officer for and in behalf of its foreign principal Elite Shipping A/S (Elite) on board its vessel M/V ArtkisHope for a period of six (6) months with a basic salary of US$1,129.00.

On March 25, 2001, the vessel was docked at Port Belem, Brazil to load timber. While petitioner was checking the last bundle of timber to be loaded, he suddenly lost his balance and fell at a height of two (2) meters. He landed on the timber and injured his right shoulder. Due to the pain he felt in his right shoulder, he was later examined at Philadelphia, U.S.A. and was considered not fit for work. It was recommended that petitioner should be confined for thorough evaluation and further tests, such as MRI. Petitioner was also advised to see an Orthopedic Surgeon and/or a Neurologist.However, petitioner was not permitted to disembark as there was no one available to replace him.

On August 8, 2001, at Ulsan, South Korea, petitioner was brought at the Ulsan Hyundai Hospital where he was treated and given medication for his "frozen right shoulder." He was also advised to undergo physical therapy. Consequently, petitioner was declared unfit to work and was recommended to be signed off from duty.

On August 10, 2001, petitioner was repatriated to Manila. He then reported to MCI which referred him to the Medical Center Manila (MCM) where he underwent a physical therapy program and was considered fit for work as of October 21, 2001.

However, after almost two (2) months of therapy, petitioner did not notice any improvement. He informed Dr.Periquet that when he was in Philadelphia, U.S.A., he was advised to consult a neurologist and undergo MRI. When Dr. Periquet ignored him, he consulted another doctor. After a series of examinations, it was concluded that petitioner will no longer be able to function as in his previous disease-free state and that his condition would hamper him from operating as chief officer of a ship.

On the basis of the findings of his doctors, petitioner sought payment of his disability benefits and medical allowance from respondents, but was refused. Petitioner therefore instituted the present Complaint against the respondents.

On February 24, 2003, after the parties submitted their respective pleadings, the Labor Arbiter (LA) rendered a Decision in favor of petitioner and ordered respondents to pay the former his disability claims, sickness allowance, and attorney fees.

Aggrieved, respondents appealed to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). On April 15, 2004, the NLRC, Third Division, rendered a Decision affirming with modification the decision of the LA.

Respondents sought recourse before the CA alleging grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of the NLRC. On April 27, 2005, the CA rendered a Decision granting the petition. The CA set aside the decision and resolution of the NLRC and dismissed petitioner complaint.

ISSUE: Whether or not the Court of Appeals committed grave error in reversing and setting aside the decisions of both the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC in finding petitioner already unfit to work as a result of the injury he sustained during the accident on board the respondent vessel and therefore entitled to disability benefits.

HELD: The petition is meritorious.

In the case at bar, the CA relied on the provisions of Section 20 (B) of the 1996 POEA-SECand the ruling of this Court in German Marine Agencies, Inc. v NLRC, in concluding that the disability of a seafarer can only be determined by a company-designated physician and not the seafarer own doctors.

Respecting the findings of the CA that it is the 1996 POEA-SEC which is applicable, nonetheless the case ofAbante v. KJGS Fleet Management Manila is instructive and worthy of note. In the said case, the CA similarly held that the contract of the parties therein was also governed by Memo Circular No. 55, series of 1996.Thus, the CA ruled that it is the assessment of the company-designated physician which is deemed controlling in the determination of a seafarer entitlement to disability benefits and not the opinion of another doctor. Nevertheless, that conclusion of the CA was reversed by this Court. Instead, the Court upheld the findings of the independent physician as to the claimant disability.

Verily, in the case of Seagull Maritime Corporation v. Dee, this Court held that nowhere in the case of German Marine Agencies, Inc. v NLRC was it held that the company-designated physician assessment of the nature and extent of a seaman's disability is final and conclusive on the employer company and the seafarer-claimant. While it is the company designated physician who must declare that the seaman suffered a permanent disability during employment, it does not deprive the seafarer of his right to seek a second opinion.

In the recent case of Daniel M. Ison v. Crewserve, Inc., et al.,although ruling against the claimant therein, the Court upheld the abovecited view and evaluated the findings of the seafarer doctors vis--vis the findings of the company-designated physician. A seafarer is, thus, not precluded from consulting a physician of his choice. Consequently, the findings of petitioner own physician can be the basis in determining whether he is entitled to his disability claims.

Verily, the courts should be vigilant in their time-honored duty to protect labor, especially in cases of disability or ailment. When applied to Filipino seamen, the perilous nature of their work is considered in determining the proper benefits to be awarded. These benefits, at the very least, should approximate the risks they brave on board the vessel every single day.

Accordingly, if serious doubt exists on the company-designated physician's declaration of the nature of a seaman's injury and its corresponding impediment grade, resort to prognosis of other competent medical professionals should be made. In doing so, a seaman should be given the opportunity to assert his claim after proving the nature of his injury. These pieces of evidence will in turn be used to determine the benefits rightfully accruing to him.

Herein petitioner, timely questioned the competence of the company-designated physician by immediately consulting two independent doctors. Neither did he sign nor execute any document agreeing with the findings of the company physician that he is already fit for work.

In any case, the bottom-line is this: the certification of the company designated physician would defeat petitioner claim while the opinion of the independent physicians would uphold such claim. In such a situation, the Court adopts the findings favorable to petitioner. The law looks tenderly on the laborer. Where the evidence may be reasonably interpreted in two divergent ways, one prejudicial and the other favorable to him, the balance must be tilted in his favor consistent with the principle of social justice.