Court of Appeals affirms $136,410 disability award to Filipino seafarer

Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals (CA) has affirmed the $136,410 (roughly P6.8 million) in total and permanent disability award to a Filipino seafarer who met an accident in 2018 while working as an oiler in an ocean-going vessel.

Upheld was the Jan. 24, 2020 ruling issued by the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators (PVA) in favor of Reynaldo V. Dimaunahan. PVA directed KJCM Maritime Corporation (KJCM) and its foreign principal, Navios Shipmanagement, Inc. and Arturo M. Paculdar to pay the award, including a 10 per cent attorney’s fees.

However, the CA -- in a decision written by Associate Justice Emily R. Aliño Geluz -- excluded Paculdar from the payment of the award together with the two companies since he “is a mere staff, an employee of petitioner KJCM Maritime Corporation.”

The CA said:

“In an array of cases, it has been consistently held that total permanent disability means the disablement of an employee to earn wages in the same kind of work that he was trained for, or accustomed to perform, or any kind of work which a person of his mentality and attainments could do. It does not mean absolute helplessness.

“In disability compensation, it is not the injury which is compensated, but rather it is the incapacity to work resulting in the impairment of one's earning capacity.

“In this case, it cannot be denied that respondent’s (Dimaunahan’s) injury resulting from the accident he had while working had rendered him incapable of performing his usual work as a seaman. Hence, he is entitled to the permanent and total disability benefits.”

On May 28, 2018, Dimaunahan was hired by KJCM for its foreign principal, Navios Shipmanagement, as an oiler for nine months with a basic monthly salary of $627.

His contract was covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and was approved by the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA) on the date he was hired.

His work in the vessel included operating lathe machines, welding, grinding, boring and gas cutting.

On June 23, 2018, while working inside the engine room of the vessel, he slipped and fell from a ladder. He incurred injuries on his lower back and left knee.

First aid was administered to him to no avail. He then had a medical consultation in Australia where he was diagnosed with lumbosacral spine and left knee injuries and was declared unfit to work.

He was repatriated on July 2, 2018. The company physician initially diagnosed him to be suffering from lumbar strain and sprain left knee. He was referred to rehabilitation medicine service.

On Aug.13, 2018, the company designated physician recommended arthroscopic repair of both knees and continuous therapy for his lower back. On Oct. 20, 2018 he had arthroscopic repair of his left knee, synovectomy repair and menisectomy.

On Feb. 14, 2019, the company designated physician issued a disability grading: “Total loss of lifting power of heavy objects is a Grade 6 disability and Stretching leg of the ligaments of a knee resulting in instability of the joint is Grade 10 disability.”

Dimaunahan sought a second opinion from another physician who declared him “unfit to work as a seaman in any capacity.”

When he and KJCM disagreed, they met for conciliation conferences to no avail. The case reached the PVA which ruled in his favor. KJCM and its principal, together with Paculdar, elevated the issue before the CA.

The CA, citing previous Supreme Court (SC) rulings, said:

“The entitlement of seafarers to disability benefits is governed not only by medical findings but also by contract and by law. Both Memorandum Circular No. 10, series of 2010 or the Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Overseas Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Ships and the parties' CBA are the contracts that bind the seafarer and the employer. By law, the Labor Code provisions on disability apply with equal force to seafarers.

“We reject petitioners’ (KJCM and Navios Shipmanagement) insistence that the findings of the company-designated physician should be given more weight and probative value over the seafarer’s physician of choice.

“Indeed, the rule that the company-designated doctor's findings shall prevail in case of non-referral of the case to a third doctor is not a hard and-fast rule as labor tribunals and the courts are not bound by the medical findings of the company-doctor. Instead, the inherent merits of the respective medical findings shall be considered.

“There is total disability when the employee is unable to earn wages in the same kind of work or work of similar nature that he or she was trained for, or accustomed to perform, or any kind of work which a person of his or her mentality and attainments could do.

“Meanwhile, there is permanent disability when the worker is unable to perform his or her job for more than 120 or 240 days, as the case may be, regardless of whether or not he loses the use of any part of his or her body.

“In this case, inasmuch as respondent’s (Dimaunahan’s) injury sustained in an accident while performing his work rendered him incapable to return to his usual work as seafarer for more than 240 days, his disability is indubitably considered total and permanent based on the prevailing jurisprudence.

“WHEREFORE, the petition is PARTLY GRANTED in that petitioner Arturo Paculdar is relieved from liability to respondent. The rest of the assailed Decision dated Jan. 24, 2020 and Resolution dated Feb.18, 2020 promulgated by the Panel of Arbitrators in MVA-086-RCMB-NCR-316-08-08-2019 STANDS. SO ORDERED.”