Temporary total disability only becomes permanent when declared by the company physician within the period he is allowed to do so, or upon the expiration of the maximum 240-day medical treatment period without a declaration of either fitness to work or permanent disability.

Complainant Michael D. Despabeladeras initiated a labor complaint against defendants New Filipino Maritime Agencies, et al., seeking to recover his permanent disability benefits. Previously, complainant “was hired by [defendant] New Filipino Maritime Agencies, Inc., for and in behalf of its principal, St. Paul Maritime Corp…, as Wiper to work on board the vessel M/V ‘ATHENS HIGHWAY’ for a period of nine (9) months, with a basic monthly salary of US$415.00.” Sometime after while on board, complainant slipped and fractured his left hand as he went down a stairs of the vessel in order to get some tools that would be used for dismantling the engine’s piston. He was repatriated to receive better medical treatment and management.

“Upon arrival in Manila on August 31, 2009, he was referred to the company-designated physician, Dr. Nicomedes G. Cruz (Dr. Cruz). Later on, Dr. Cruz endorsed Michael to an orthopedic surgeon. Michael’s medical treatment was supervised by Dr. Cruz from August 2009 until February 10, 2010. Despite continuous treatment under the care of Dr. Cruz, Michael alleged that his medical condition did not improve. This prompted him to consult another physician, Dr. Rogelio C. Catapang, Jr. (Dr. Catapang), who declared him unfit to resume his duties as a seaman on January 16, 2010.”

“Michael’s check-up with the orthopedic surgeon on February 3, 2010 showed minimal pain on the left hand, but he was advised to continue with his medical therapy. Michael went back for his check-up on February 10, 2010, and he was asked to return for a follow-up check up on February 17, 2010. He failed to return on the said date. Instead, he demanded that he be paid disability benefits.” When his demand was not heeded, he filed this labor complaint.

HELD: The complaint was dismissed. The 120-day rule “cannot be used as a cure-all formula for all maritime compensation cases.” Here, it must be pointed out “that on February 10, 2010 when Michael last visited the company-designated orthopedic surgeon, it had been 166 days since he was referred to the company-designated physician upon his repatriation on August 28, 2009. During this time, Michael was under temporary total disability inasmuch as the 240-day period provided under the aforecited Rules had not yet lapsed.”

“There being no assessment, complainant’s condition cannot be considered a permanent total disability. Temporary total disability only becomes permanent when declared by the company physician within the period he is allowed to do so, or upon the expiration of the maximum 240-day medical treatment period without a declaration of either fitness to work or permanent disability.”

On abandonment, complainant was guilty of medical abandonment “for his failure to complete his treatment even before the lapse of the 240 days period. Due to his willful discontinuance of medical treatment with Dr. Cruz, the latter could not declare him fit to work or assess his disability.” As a result, “without any disability assessment from Dr. Cruz, complainant’s claim for disability compensation cannot prosper. Section 20(D) of the POEA-SEC instructs that no compensation and benefits shall be payable in respect of any injury, incapacity, disability or death of the seafarer resulting from his willful or criminal act or intentional breach of his duties. Complainant was duty-bound to complete his medical treatment until declared fit to work or assessed with a permanent disability grading. It is undisputed that complainant did not undergo further treatment.”

Here, it was established that “while he was under the medical treatment of the company orthopedic surgeon, his condition had been gradually improving. In fact, as per medical report, dated February 3, 2010, his range of motion was full and his left hand had good hand grip. Furthermore, based on the company-designated physician’s medical opinion that had complainant appeared at the scheduled medical consultation, he would have been declared fit to work as a seafarer.” Thus, the filing of the case was premature as there was no cause of action yet for total and permanent disability at the time of filing the complaint.

Regarding complainant’s medical certificate from his private doctor, it is useless. “Indeed, a seafarer has the right to seek the opinion of other doctors under Section 20-B(3) of the POEA-SEC but this is on the presumption that there is already a certification by the company-designated physician as to his fitness or disability which he finds disagreeable. Under the same provision, it is the company-designated physician who is entrusted with the task of assessing a seafarer’s disability and there is a procedure to contest his findings. In this case, to repeat, complainant deprived the company-designated physician to determine his fitness for sea duty when he chose not to appear for his scheduled check-up.”

G.R. No. 209201, 19 November 2014

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