The beneficiaries of a deceased seafarer may be able to claim death benefits for as long as they are able to establish that (a) the seafarer’s death is work-related, and (b) such death had occurred during the term of his employment contract.

G.R. No. 198408, 12 November 2014

Complainant Conchita J. Racelis, as the surviving spouse of Rodolfo L. Racelis, initiated a claim for death benefits pursuant to the International Transport Workers’ Federation-Collective Bargaining Agreement (ITWF-CBA), of which her husband was a member. However, her claim was denied by the employer on the ground that the death was not work-related as it was due to Brainstem (pontine) Cavernous Malformation, which was congenital and it had familiar strains according to a doctor. Thus, complainant instituted a labor case against them.

Previously, Rodolfo L. Racelis “was recruited and hired by respondent United Philippine Lines, Inc. (UPL) for its principal, respondent Holland America Lines, Inc. (HAL) to serve as ‘Demi Chef De Partie’ on board the vessel MS Prinsendam, with a basic monthly salary of US$799.55.5 The Contract of Employment was for a term of four (4) months, extendible for another two (2) months upon mutual consent. After complying with the required pre-employment medical examination where he was declared fit to work, Rodolfo joined the vessel on January 25, 2008. Prior thereto, Rodolfo was repeatedly contracted by said respondents and was deployed under various contracts since December 17, 1985.”

On his last employment, Rodolfo experienced severe pain in his ears and high blood pressure causing him to collapse while in the performance of his duties. He consulted a doctor in Argentina and was medically repatriated on February 20, 2008 for further medical treatment. Upon arrival in Manila, he was immediately brought to Medical City, Pasig City, where he was seen by a company-designated physician, Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, M.D. (Dr. Legaspi), and was diagnosed to be suffering from Brainstem (pontine) Cavernous Malformation. He underwent surgery twice for the said ailment but developed complications and died on March 2, 2008.”

HELD: The employer was held liable. “Deemed incorporated in every seafarer’s employment contract, denominated as the POEA-SEC or the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract, is a set of standard provisions determined and implemented by the POEA, called the ‘Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean Going Vessels,’ which are considered to be the minimum requirements acceptable to the government for the employment of Filipino seafarers on board foreign ocean-going vessels.”

In the 2000 POEA-SEC, it stipulates that “the beneficiaries of a deceased seafarer may be able to claim death benefits for as long as they are able to establish that (a) the seafarer’s death is work-related, and (b) such death had occurred during the term of his employment contract.”

Under the 2000 POEA-SEC, “work-related injury” is defined as “injury(ies) resulting in disability or death arising out of and in the course of employment.” On the other hand, “work-related illness” is defined as “any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of this contract with the conditions set therein satisfied.”

Jurisprudence provides that “[t]he words ‘arising out of’ refer to the origin or cause of the accident, and are descriptive of its character, while the words ‘in the course of’ refer to the time, place, and circumstances under which the accident takes place. As a matter of general proposition, an injury or accident is said to arise ‘in the course of employment’ when it takes place within the period of the employment, at a place where the employee reasonably may be, and while he is fulfilling his duties or is engaged in doing something incidental thereto.”

Here, the death of the seafarer is evidently work-related. “While it is true that Brainstem (pontine) Cavernous Malformation is not listed as an occupational disease under Section 32-A of the 2000 POEA-SEC, Section 20 (B) (4) of the same explicitly provides that ‘[t[he liabilities of the employer when the seafarer suffers work-related injury or illness during the term of his contract are as follows: (t)hose illnesses not listed in Section 32 of this Contract are dispuatbly presumed as work related.’ In other words, the 2000 POEA-SEC ‘has created a disputable presumption in favor of compensability[,] saying that those illnesses not listed in Section 32 are disputably presumed as work-related. This means that even if the illness is not listed under Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC as an occupational disease or illness, it will still be presumed as work-related, and it becomes incumbent on the employer to overcome the presumption.’ This presumption should be overturned only when the employer’s refutation is found to be supported by substantial evidence, which, as traditionally defined is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion.”

Further, the seafarer’s death occurred during the term of employment. “While it is true that a medical repatriation has the effect of terminating the seafarer’s contract of employment, it is, however, enough that the work-related illness, which eventually becomes the proximate cause of death, occurred while the contract was effective for recovery to be had.”

The 1987 Constitution affords full protection to labor. “Consistent with the State’s avowed policy to afford full protection to labor as enshrined in Article XIII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the POEA-SEC was designed primarily for the protection and benefit of Filipino seafarers in the pursuit of their employment on board ocean-going vessels. As such, it is a standing principle that its provisions are to be construed and applied fairly, reasonably, and liberally in their favor.”

Guided by these principles, it has been held that “a medical repatriation case constitutes an exception to the second requirement under Section 20 (A) (1) of the 2000 POEA-SEC, i.e., that the seafarer’s death had occurred during the term of his employment, in view of the terminative consequences of a medical repatriation under Section 18 (B) of the same. In essence, the Court held that under such circumstance, the work-related death need not precisely occur during the term of his employment as it is enough that the seafarer’s work-related injury or illness which eventually causes his death had occurred during the term of his employment.”

As for the award, respondents never died and therefore admitted that “the late Rodolfo’s membership in the AMOSUP that had entered into a collective bargaining agreement with HAL, or the ITWF-CBA” is applicable. Its provisions therefore must prevail over the standard terms and benefits formulated by the POEA in its Standard Employment Contract. Hence, the NLRC’s award of US$60,000.00 as compensation for the death of Rodolfo in accordance with Article 21.2.1 of the ITWF-CBA was in order. The same holds true for the award of burial assistance in the amount of US$1,000.00 which is provided under Section 20 (A) (4) (c) of the 2000 POEA-SEC. Moreover, conformably with existing case law, the NLRC’s grant of attorney’s fees in the amount of US$6,100.00 was called for since petitioner was forced to litigate to protect her valid claim. 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.”