G.R. No. 226411. November 21, 2016

THIRD DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 226411, November 21, 2016 ]
ALSTER INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING SERVICES INCORPORATED AND/OR AMS ALSTER MARINE SERVICES VS. EVANGELINO G. GADONG.

Before this Court is a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court assailing the February 26, 2016 Decision[1] and the August 15, 2016 Resolution[2] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 141284, which affirmed the June 4, 2015 and July 3, 2015 Orders[3] of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators (VA) which granted a seafarer's claim for permanent and total disability benefits.

The Facts

Respondent Evangelino G. Gadong entered into a contract of employment with petitioner Alster International Shipping Services Incorporated (Alster), for and in behalf of its principal, petitioner AMS Alster Marine Services (AMS), to work as Cook on board MV Cecilia for a period of six (6) months beginning December 12, 2013. Aside from the provisions of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), the employment contract is also governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).[4]

On January 1, 2014, while the ship was encountering a bad weather, respondent met an accident as he was bringing kitchen wares from the bridge to the galley. According to respondent, the fire door/provision room door repeatedly slammed his back and hit his right hand which fractured his middle finger. Respondent was then brought, to a hospital in Portugal for treatment where he was also subsequently declared as unfit for duty. Thus, on January 9, 2014, respondent was medically repatriated and referred to the company-designated physician.

On January 10, 2014, respondent was diagnosed with "closed complete fracture, distal third of the distal phalanx, right middle finger, lacerated wound middle phalanx, right middle finger, S/P suturing of lacerated wound"[5]

On January 16, 2014, respondent returned to the company-designated physician and complained of pain on his fingers, elbow and back. He was subjected to x-ray which yielded the result of "spondylosis" and "straightened lordokyphosis:"[6]

On March 12, 2014, respondent asked petitioners' permission to seek the opinion of a doctor of his choice. He was given a referral slip but was reminded that any subsequent check-ups would be at his own expense.

On July 2, 2014, the company-designated physician issued his findings declaring respondent as "clear to work with regards (sic) to his right middle finger injury"[7]Not satisfied with the findings of the company-designated physician, respondent sought the opinion of an independent doctor who assessed him as permanently disabled due to cervical spondylosis. Thus, respondent requested from petitioners that he be referred to a third doctor for a final medical evaluation; however, such request was not acted upon by the petitioners.

Due to petitioners' refusal to grant respondent any disability benefits on account of the fit-to-work certification issued by the company-designated physician, respondent filed a complaint with the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB). The parties underwent conciliation proceedings, but they failed to reach an amicable settlement. Hence, the conciliation proceedings were terminated and the parties were directed to file their respective position papers.

Ruling of the VA

On June 4, 2015, the VA rendered a Decision awarding full disability compensation to petitioner, disposing of the case as follows:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the respondents are hereby jointly and solidarity liable to pay complainant his total and permanent disability benefit in the amount of ONE HUNDRED TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND ($125,000.00) DOLLARS or its peso equivalent at the time of payment plus ten (10%) percent of the total monetary award by way of attorney's fees.

All other claims are hereby DENIED.

SO ORDERED.[8]
Petitioners moved for reconsideration but the same was denied by the VA in its July 3, 2015 Order.[9] Thus, petitioners filed a Petition for Review with the CA.

Ruling of the CA

In its February 26, 2016 Decision, the CA resolved to dismiss petitioners' petition for review. The fallo of the Decision reads:
WHEREFORE, the Petition is DISMISSED. The Orders dated 04 June 2015 and 03 July 2015 both issued by the Office of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators, National Conciliation and Mediation Board are hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.[10]
In affirming the Orders of the VA, the appellate court held that respondent is entitled to permanent and: total disability benefits in accordance with the law, the contract as embodied in the POEA-SEC and the parties' CBA, and the medical findings on respondents' injury. The CA found that respondent's spondylosis (thoracic spine injury) is compensable, entitling him to full disability benefits in the amount of US$125,000 as provided in the parties' CBA.

Petitioners filed a Motion for Reconsideration which was denied by the CA in its August 15, 2016 Resolution.

Hence, the instant petition.

The Issues

Petitioners anchor their plea for the reversal of the assailed Decision on the following grounds:[11]

I.

WHETHER IT WAS AN ERROR OF LAW THAT THE CA AWARDED DISABILITY BENEFITS DESPITE THE FACT THAT "CERVICOTHORACICSPONDYLOSIS" IS NOT WORK-RELATED AND WAS NOT PROVEN WITH SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE IT WAS SUFFERED DURING THE TERM OF EMPLOYMENT.

II.

WHETHER IT WAS AN ERROR OF LAW THAT THE CA AWARDED DISABILITY COMPENSATION DESPITE THE FACT THAT RESPONDENT'S ILLNESS IS NOT COVERED BY THE CBA; AND

III.

WHETHER IT WAS AN ERROR OF LAW THAT THE CA AFFIRMED THE AWARDED ATTORNEY'S FEES.

Succinctly put, the pivotal issue to be resolved is whether or not respondent is entitled to permanent and total disability benefits.

Petitioners claim that respondent was repatriated solely on the basis of the injury on his right hand's middle finger and that respondent never mentioned or complained of any problems with his back or neck. According to petitioners, after a thorough and extensive medical treatment, the company-designated physician issued a clearance for work with regard to respondent's middle finger injury and that the back and/or neck injury which respondent based his claim for disability benefits is not work-related as it was not the injury for which he was repatriated.[12]

Respondent, on the other hand, claims that aside from the fracture on his finger, he likewise sustained severe injuries on his back as the door purportedly repeatedly slammed thereto before it hit his hand.[13]

The Court's Ruling

We resolve to deny the petition.

Respondent's back injury is work-related

Petitioners assert that respondent never complained about experiencing back pains from the time he incurred the accident on board MV Cecilia up to the time when he was being treated by the company-designated doctors. They argue that no proof was presented to show the work-relation of respondent's back injury. Hence, petitioners insist that the inclusion of respondent's back injury as a basis for permanent and total disability benefits has no basis in fact and law.[14]

Contrary to petitioners' claims, the CA found that the various medical reports issued on different dates by the company-designated physicians reflect respondent's recurring back pain which he was then experiencing. The CA made the following findings:
The entries In the said reports, though differently worded, similarly convey: "There is on and off mid back pain. He has functional neck and trunk range motion, He cannot tolerate lifting or carrying capacities" Another entry sates: "There is limited right D3, distal phalanx and poor grip on the R hand. He also has limitation of cervical spine rotation." It appears therefore that while Respondent consistently complained of the pain in his back, among others, during his check-ups Petitioners and/or its doctors simply ignored the said complaints and focused only on Respondent's injury on his finger.[15]
Moreover, respondent's back injury was further confirmed by the independent physician who found that respondent will no longer be able to perform his usual tasks as a seafarer, rendering him as permanently disabled:
Impression:
Traumatic Accident, fractured right middle finger
Scar, Right middle finger secondary to traumatic accident
C7 Dislocation, secondary to traumatic accident
Cervical Spondylosis

Reason for Permanent Disability

At preset, Seaman Gadong is very apprehensive especially when he came to know that he has a dislocation of his cervical spine and was incurred during his accident while working; on board their ship, xxx Because of this, he will not be able to perform his job effectively, efficiently, and productively as a seaman, he is therefore given a permanent disability. [16]
The CA gave due credence to the medical reports issued by the company-designated physicians, as well as the findings of the independent physician which clearly show that aside from his injured finger, respondent was experiencing back pains after the accident he encountered on board the ship and while on duty. As such, it is erroneous for petitioners to argue that no proof was presented to show the work-relation of respondent's back injury. The truth is, petitioners merely ignored respondent's complaints regarding his back and focused only on his injured finger.

Thus, based on the evidence presented, the CA is correct in affirming the VA's finding that respondent's injury is work-related, hence, compensable.

Respondent's injury is covered by the parties' CBA

Petitioners claim that respondent's injury is not compensable arguing that his disability was not caused by an accident which is covered by the provisions of the parties' CBA. Again, the petitioners are mistaken.

The CBA, which governs the parties' contract, provides:
DISABILITY

A Seafarer who suffers an injury as a result of an accident from any cause whatsoever (while) in; the employment of the Managers/Owners, including accidents occurring while traveling to or from the ship as a result of marine or other similar peril, and whose ability to work is reduced as a result thereof, shall receive from the Managers/Owners in addition to her/his sick pay xxx a compensation as stated below:

Compensation:

a) Masters and Officers and ratings above AB US$250,000.00
b) All Ratings, AB and below US$125,000.00

Loss of profession caused by disability accident shall be secured by 100% of the compensation

xxx xxx xxx

9. Permanent Medical Unfitness - A Seafarer whose disability xxx is assessed at 50% or more xxx shall be regarded as permanently unfit for further sea service in any capacity and be entitled to 100% compensation.[17]
Based on the foregoing, the CBA guarantees the payment of US$125,000 compensation for a seafarer, other than the master and officers, who suffers an injury while on-board the vessel by reason of an accident regardless of the cause. As discussed above; since respondent's injury is work-related caused by the accident which he encountered while on board the ship and while on duty, it clearly follows that such injury is covered by the parties' CBA. Thus, the CA is correct in; upholding that respondent is entitled to permanent and total disability benefits in the amount of US$125,000 as provided in the parties' CBA.

Verily, this Court sees no reason to overturn the factual findings of the VA, as affirmed by the CA. Petitioners failed to show that such factual findings were arbitrarily made or that evidence on record was disregarded.

As a general rule, it must be emphasized that this Court is not a trier of facts and a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court must exclusively raise questions of law. In the exercise of its power of review, the findings of fact of the CA are conclusive and binding on this Court and it is not our function to analyze or weigh evidence all over again.

In the instant case, the CA accorded due respect on the factual findings of the VA as these were supported by the totality of the evidence presented. Well-settled is the rule that findings of fact of administrative agencies and quasi-judicial bodies which have acquired expertise because their jurisdiction is confined to specific matters, are generally accorded not only great respect but even finality. They are binding upon this Court unless there is a showing of grave abuse of discretion or where it is clearly shown that they were arrived at arbitrarily or in utter disregard of the evidence on record.[18] No such reason exists in this case to warrant a deviation from the general rule.

Lastly, considering that respondent was forced to litigate and incur expenses to protect his valid claim, his right to attorney's fees as recognized by the CA is affirmed by this Court Where an employee is forced to litigate and incur expenses to protect his right and interest, he is entitled to an award of attorney's fees equivalent to 10% of the award.[19]

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the petition is DENIED. The Decision dated February 26, 2016 and the Resolution dated August 15, 2016 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 141284 are hereby AFFIRMED. (Peralta, J., no part, as his spouse, Court of Appeals Justice Fernanda Lampas-Peralta, concurred in the assailed, CA decision and resolution; Leonen, J., designated additional Member per Raffle dated September 19, 2016)

SO ORDERED.

[1]Rollo, pp. 56-65. Penned by Associate Justice Jane .Aurora C. Lantion and concurred in by Associate Justices Fernanda Lampas Peralta and Nina G. Antonio-Valenzuela.

[2]Id. at 67-68.

[3]Copies of the VA's Orders were not attached to the petition.

[4]A copy of the CBA was not attached to the petition.

[5]Rollo, p. 58.

[6]Id.

[7]Id.

[8]Id. at 57.

[9]Not attached to the petition.

[10]Rollo, p. 64.

[11]Id. at 38.

[12]Id. at 35-37.

[13] Id. at 59.

[14] Id. at 40.

[15]Id. at 63.

[16]Id. at 60.

[17]Id. at 62-63.

[18]Samahan Ng Mga Manggagawa Sa Hyatt NUWHRAIN-APL v. Voluntary Arbitrator Froilan M. Bacungan and Hyatt Regency, G.R. No. 149050, March 25, 2009.

[19]United Philippine Lines, Inc. v. Sibug, G.R. No. 201072, April 2, 2014 and Fil-Pride Shipping Company, Inc., et al. v. Balasta, G.R. No. 193047, March 3, 2014.

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