No compensation shall be payable in respect of any injury, incapacity, disability or death of the seafarer resulting from his willful or criminal act, provided however, that the employer can prove that such injury, incapacity, disability or death is directly attributable to seafarer.

G.R. No. 178564, 15 January 2014

Complainant and seafarer Alexander L. Moradas filed a labor complainant seeking to be paid his permanent disability benefits against defendants INC Shipmanagement, Inc. and its principal, defendant Interorient Navigation, Ltd., and the ship captain.

Previously, complainant was employed as a wiper for the vessel MV Commander by defendant INC Shipmanagement, Inc. for its principal, defendant Interorient Navigation, Ltd., for a period of 10 months, with a basic monthly salary of US$360.00, plus benefits. Sometime after, complainant “claimed that while he was disposing of the garbage in the incinerator room of the vessel, certain chemicals splashed all over his body because of an explosion. He was sent to the Burns Unit of the Prince of Wales Hospital on the same day wherein he was found to have suffered deep burns. Eventually, upon his own request, [complainant] was sent home.”

On his arrival, he was admitted to the St. Luke’s Medical Center. After a month of treatment, his attending physician reported to defendants that the “thermal burns were healing well and that they were estimated to fully heal within a period of 3 to 4 months.” Complainant, however, claimed that the burns rendered him permanently incapable of working again as a seaman. When he demanded for his full disability benefits, it was denied. Hence, he filed this labor complaint. By way of defense, defendants claimed that complainant’s injuries were self-inflicted.

HELD: The complaint was dismissed. “The prevailing rule under Section 20 (B) of the 1996 POEA-SEC on compensation and benefits for injury or illness was that an employer shall be liable for the injury or illness suffered by a seafarer during the term of his contract. There was no need to show that such injury was work-related except that it must be proven to have been contracted during the term of the contract. The rule, however, is not absolute and the employer may be exempt from liability if he can successfully prove that the cause of the seaman’s injury was directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act as provided under Section 20 (D) thereof, to wit: … ‘D. No compensation shall be payable in respect of any injury, incapacity, disability or death of the seafarer resulting from his willful or criminal act, provided however, that the employer can prove that such injury, incapacity, disability or death is directly attributable to seafarer.’”

Consequently, “the onus probandi falls on the [employers-defendants] herein to establish or substantiate their claim that the [complainant’s] injury was caused by his willful act with the requisite quantum of evidence.

In labor cases, “only substantial evidence or such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion is required. To note, considering that substantial evidence is an evidentiary threshold, the Court, on exceptional cases, may assess the factual determinations made by the NLRC in a particular case.”

Here, defendants successfully discharged the burden of proving by substantial evidence that complainant’s injury was directly attributable to himself for the following reasons:

“First, records bear out circumstances which all lead to the reasonable conclusion that respondent was responsible for the flooding and burning incidents.

In this case, the LA and NLRC “gave credence to the corroborating testimonies of the crewmen pointing to respondent as the person who deliberately caused the flooding incident. In particular, [complainant] was seen alone in the vicinity of the port side seachest which cover was found to have been intentionally removed and thereby caused the flooding. He was also seen disappearing up to the boiler deck just when the bilge level alarm sounded with patches of water left on the floor plates and on the stairways. Respondent neither denied nor proffered any explanation on the foregoing claims especially when all of his fellow engine room staff, except him, responded to the alarm and helped pump out the water in the engine room. As to the burning, [complainant] failed to successfully controvert Gile’s claim that he saw the former go to the paint room, soak his hands in a can full of thinner and proceed to the incinerator door where he was set ablaze. In fact, [complainant’s] burnt overalls conform to the aforesaid claim as it had green paint on the arms and body and smelled strongly of thinner, while the open paint tin can that was found in the vicinity contained solvent which had the same green color found on the overalls.

“Second, [complainant’s] version that the burning was caused by an accident is hardly supported by the evidence on record. The purported explosion in the incinerator was belied by Gile who also claimed that there was no fire in the incinerator room at the time respondent got burned. This was corroborated by Bejada who testified having ordered an ordinary seaman that was burning deck waste in the incinerator early that day to extinguish the fire with water and close up the incinerator door because of bad weather conditions. Accordingly, an inspection of the incinerator after the incident showed that there were unburnt cardboard cartons found inside with no sign of explosion and the steel plates surrounding it were cool to the touch. Further, as aptly discerned by the LA, if there was really an incinerator explosion, then respondent’s injury would have been more serious.

“[Complainant] debunked Gile’s claim by merely asserting in his Answer and Rejoinder before the POEA that the latter could not have been in the room at the time he got burned as he was not the first person to rescue him and concluded that he could not have soaked his hands in a can full of thinner considering the extent of damage caused to his hands. This argument is riddled with serious flaws: Gile could have been the second man in, and still personally know the matters he has alleged. Also, that [complainant] soaked his hands in thinner is not denied by the fact that the greatest damage was not caused to it since the fire could have started at some part of his body considering that his overalls also had flammable chemicals. Reason also dictates that he could have extinguished the fire on his hands sooner than the other parts of his body. In any event, the medical records of [complainant], particularly the report issued by the Prince of Wales Hospital Burns Surgery, show that he suffered from “deep burn area” that was distributed over his left upper limb, right hand, left flank and both thighs. To assert that [complainant’s] hands should have suffered the greatest damage is plainly argumentative and records are bereft of showing as to the exact degree of burn suffered for each part.

“To add, Bejada’s statement that [complainant’s] burnt overalls had patches of green paint on the arms and body and strongly smelled of thinner conforms with Gile’s claim that he soaked his hands in a can of thinner before approaching the incinerator (thinner may be found in a paint room). Such fact further fortifies [defendants’] assertion that his injury was self-inflicted as a prudent man would not dispose of garbage in the incinerator under such condition.

“And if only to placate other doubts, the CA’s finding that ‘some chemicals splashed [on complainant’s] body’ should not automatically mean that the ‘splashing’ was caused by pure accident. It is equally reasonable to conclude that the ‘splashing’ – as may be inferred from both the LA’s and NLRC’s findings – was a by-product of [complainant’s] botched sabotage attempt.”

“Third, [defendants’] theory that [complainant’s] burns were self-inflicted gains credence through the existence of motive. At this juncture, the Court finds it important to examine the existence of motive in this case since no one actually saw what transpired in the incinerator room. To this end, the confluence of the circumstances antecedent to the burning should be examined in conjunction with the existing accounts of the crew members. That said, both the LA and the NLRC made a factual finding that prior to the burning incident, [complainant] was caught pilfering the vessel’s supplies for which he was told that he was to be relieved from his duties. This adequately supports the reasonable conclusion that [complainant] may have harbored a grudge against the captain and the chief steward who denied giving him the questioned items. At the very least, it was natural for him to brood over feelings of resentment considering his impending dismissal. These incidents shore up the theory that he was motivated to commit an act of sabotage which, however, backfired into his own burning.”