G.R. No. 229779, April 17, 2017

THIRD DIVISION [ G.R. No. 229779, April 17, 2017 ] EDGAR TRASADAS TUMESA VS. ABACAST SHIPPING CO., INC. AND/OR HIONG GUAN NAVEGACION CO., LTD. AND/OR ROBERTO CASTANEDA.

This petition for review under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court seeks to reverse and set aside the August 25, 2016 Decision[1] and January 23, 2017 Resolution[2] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 135697 entitled "Edgar Trasadas Tumesa v. Abacast Shipping Co., Inc., and/or Hiong Guan Navegacion Co., Ltd., and/or Roberto Castaneda" which affirmed the January 30, 2014 Decision of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) in NLRC LAC No. 10-000960-13 dismissing petitioner's claim for total and permanent disability benefits.

The present petition stemmed from a complaint before the NLRC, docketed as NLRC-NCR-OFW(M)-11-16712-12, for the payment of total permanent disability compensation, medical benefits, reimbursement of medical, hospital, and transportation expenses, sickwage allowance, and attorney's fees filed by petitioner Edgar Trasadas Tumesa (Tumesa) against private respondent Abacast Shipping and Management Co., Inc. (Abacast) with the Labor Arbiter (LA).[3]

Tumesa was hired by Abacast to work for its principal, Hiong Guan Navegacion Co., Ltd., as an oiler onboard the vessel M/V Balsa 83 for a term of ten (10) months. Prior to embarkation, Tumesa underwent the mandatory pre-employment examination (PEME) and was declared fit for sea duty.[4]On or about the third week of May 2012, while aboard the ship, Tumesa complained of pain and swelling on his lower gums and continued to experience the pain for one month.[5] On July 30, 2012, Tumesa was brought to Savannah, USA, where he was examined by Dr. John Wiebe (Dr. Wiebe). Dr. Wiebe diagnosed Tumesa to be suffering from neoplasm based on the following observations:
Addendum to Medical report for: Edgard Tumesa DOB 7-31-1973; DOWA Line America Co.

Attention: Drew Ryan

Dr. John Weibe's consult and examination on the above crew member revealed a golf sized mass in the left anterior mandible. It had no apparent dental involvement or infection.

The Doctor's recommendation is to have the crew member sent home to have definitive surgery to remove the mass. This would involve an extensive surgery and lengthy recovery. The mass is not life threatening, however it is very painful to the patient and should be removed within a short amount of time. Therefore, Dr. Weibe is recommending immediate repatriation.

If not possible for travel arrangements to [be] made immediately, he could perform some limited duties while awating (sic) transport.
Due to his condition, Tumesa was repatriated to the Philippines, and thereafter, was subjected to a series of medical examinations upon his arrival. Despite undergoing all the aforementioned examinations, Tumesa continued to experience pain. Moreover, no medical assistance was extended to him and was only told to wait for the approval of the medical costs and procedure from Abacast's foreign principal. This prompted Tumesa to file a complaint for disability compensation.

Abacast, for its part, countered that the illness suffered by Tumesa is not work-related. In support of this assertion, Abacast presented the expert opinion of its accredited physican, Dr. Ramon A. Lao (Dr. Lao), who opined that Tumesa's illness was not work-related, and hence, non-compensable.

Ruling of the Labor Arbiter

On July 12, 2013, the LA rendered a Decision granting Tumesa's claims. The dispositive portion of the said decision reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered ordering respondents to pay jointly and severally complainant EDGAR TRASADAS TUMESA the sums of US$60,000.00 or its Philippine peso equivalent at the actual payment representing his permanent total disability compensation, US$3,240 as his 120 days sickness allowance and ten percent (10%) of the total award as attorney's fees.

SO ORDERED.
Ruling of the National Labor Relations Commission

On appeal, the NLRC reversed the LA in its January 30, 2014 Decision and disposed of the case in this wise:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, respondent's Appeal is hereby GRANTED. The Decision of the Labor Arbiter Pablo A. Gajardo, Jr., dated July 12, 2013 is REVERSED and SET ASIDE.

SO ORDERED.
The NLRC found that Tumesa's condition is not included in the list of occupational diseases under the 2010 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Overseas Employment of Filipino Seafarers Onboard Ocean-Going Ships (POEA-SEC), and thus, he had the burden to show by substantial evidence that his sickness developed or was aggravated from work-related causes. The NLRC consequently concluded that Tumesa failed to establish that his illness was neither brought about nor exacerbated by his working conditions onboard M/V Balsa 83.

Tumesa sought for a reconsideration of the said Decision, but the NLRC denied the same in its March 31, 2014 Resolution. Thereafter, Tumesa questioned the NLRC's Decision and Resolution in a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 before the CA.

Ruling of the Court of Appeals

The CA, in the assailed Decision, affirmed the ruling of the NLRC and denied the petition, thus:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing premises, the petition is hereby DENIED. The Decision dated January 30, 2014 and Resolution dated March 31, 2014 issued by the NLRC Fifth (5th) Division are hereby AFFIRMED in toto.

SO ORDERED.
In so ruling, the CA gave weight and credence to the medical findings of the company-designated doctor, Dr. Lao, that Tumesa's illness was not caused by his duties in the ship as an oiler. Accordingly, the CA ruled that the NLRC could not be faulted in relying on the medical report and findings of the accredited physician of Abacast since Tumesa did not present any countervailing evidence to controvert the findings of Dr. Lao.[6]

Tumesa moved for reconsideration of the adverted Decision, but the same was denied by the CA in the January 23, 2017 Resolution. Hence, this petition.

Petitioner claims that he is entitled to total and permanent disability benefits since he contracted his illness during his employment with Abacast, and that he remains unemployed and unfit for sea duties due to his ailment. [7]

Issue

The issue for the resolution of the Court is whether or not Tumesa is entitled to total and permanent disability compensation.

Ruling of the Court

We rule in the negative. The petition is denied.

The POEA-SEC provides for compensation to seafarers for injuries or illnesses contracted during the term of their employment, under the conditions set forth in the contract. In relation to this, Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC contains a list of compensable occupational diseases, provided that the following conditions are met:
  1. The seafarer's work must involve the risks describe herein;
  2. The disease was contracted as a result of the seafarer's exposure to the describe[d] risks;
  3. The disease was contracted within a period of exposure and under such other factors necessary to contract it;
  4. There was no notorious negligence on the part of the seafarer. 
Stated otherwise, a seafarer's illness contracted during his employment, to be compensable, must be work-related,[8] or be among any of the occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC with the conditions set therein satisfied.

In the present case, it is undisputed that Tumesa suffered swelling on his lower gums, which was diagnosed to be ameloblastoma, a rare benign tumor. Upon his arrival in the country, Tumesa immediately underwent a series of medical examinations. Based on the results of these examinations, the company-accredited physician, Dr. Lao, then issued an opinion stating that there are no well-established causes of ameloblastoma, although the occurrence thereof is most commonly associated with unerupted tooth. A reading of Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC, however, shows that ameloblastoma is not among the compensable occupational diseases enumerated therein. Despite the non-inclusion of ameloblastoma in Section 32-A, Section 20-A (4) of the POEA-SEC provides that an illness suffered by a seafarer during the term of his contract is presumed to be work-related and compensable. Nevertheless, a person who claims entitlement to the benefits provided by law must establish his right thereto by substantial evidence or "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hence, the burden is on the seafarer to prove that he suffered from a work-related injury or illness during the term of his contract.[9]

Thus, the Court, in Doehle-Philman Manning Agency Inc. v. Haro,[10] reiterated its earlier pronouncement in Jebsen Maritime, Inc. v. Ravena[11] that the claimant still has the burden to present substantial evidence or "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion" that his work conditions caused or at least increased the risk of contracting the illness. As pronounced in Quizora v. Denholm Crew Management (Philippines), Inc.:[12]
At any rate, granting that the provisions of the 2000 POEA-SEC [now 2010 POEA-SEC] apply, the disputable presumption provision in Section 20 (B) [20 (A) (4)] does not allow him to just sit down and wait for respondent company to present evidence to overcome the disputable presumption of work-relatedness of the illness. Contrary to his position, he still has to substantiate his claim in order to be entitled to disability compensation. He has to prove that the illness he suffered was work-related and that it must have existed during the term of his employment contract. He cannot simply argue that the burden of proof belongs to respondent company.
As a non-occupational disease, Tumesa's ameloblastoma merely enjoyed a disputable presumption of being work-related. Dr. Lao's diagnosis of Tumesa, based on the medical examinations the latter underwent, overturned that presumption. Tumesa, therefore, had the burden of proving by substantial evidence that the tumor was caused by his employment, or the risk of contracting the illness was increased by the working conditions onboard the MV/Balsa 83.

Regrettably, save from Tumesa's self-serving allegations, the records are bereft of any evidence that his illness was contracted or aggravated by the nature of his work. He even failed to present medical findings of other physicians which could have lent credence to his claim of causal relation between his illness and his work and his continued unfitness for further sea duties. Although the ameloblastoma manifested while Tumesa was aboard the vessel, such circumstance is insufficient to entitle him to disability benefits as it is of equal importance to also show that his illness is work-related. Moreover, both the NLRC and the CA are one in concluding that Tumesa failed to prove the causal relation between his ailment and his work as an oiler onboard MV Balsa 83. Factual findings of quasi-judicial bodies like the NLRC, if supported by substantial evidence, are accorded respect and even finality by this Court. Such factual findings are given more weight when the same are affirmed by the CA.[13]

Thus, considering that Tumesa failed to establish the work-relatedness of his ameloblastoma through substantial evidence, his claim for disability benefits was properly denied by the NLRC.

WHEREFORE, finding no reversible error in the assailed Decision and Resolution of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 135697, the Court resolves to DENY the petition and, thus, AFFIRM said Decision and Resolution.

SO ORDERED.

[1] Penned by Associate Justice Carmelita Salandanan Manahan, with the concurrence of Associate Justices Japar B. Dimaampao and Franchito N. Diamante; rollo, pp. 21-32.

[2] Id. at 33-34.

[3] Id. at 22.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 23.

[6] Id. at 31.

[7] Id. at 10.

[8] As defined in the 2010 Amended POEA-SEC.

[9]  Dizon v. Naess Shipping Philippines, Inc., G.R. No. 201834, June 1, 2016, citing Transmarine Carriers, Inc. v. Aligway Phil., G.R. No. 201793, September 16, 2015.

[10] G.R. No. 206522, April 18, 2016.

[11] G.R. No. 200566, September 17, 2014, 735 SCRA 494.

[12] G.R. No. 185412, November 16, 2011, 660 SCRA 309.

[13] Emeritus Security and Maintenance Systems, Inc. v. Dailig, G.R. No. 204761, April 2, 2014.

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