Section 20-B of the POEA-SEC provides that the seafarer is not irrevocably bound by the findings of the company-designated physician as he is allowed to seek a second opinion and consult a doctor of his choice. In case of disagreement between the findings of the company-designated physician and the seafarer’s private physician, the parties shall jointly agree to refer the matter to a third doctor whose findings shall be final and binding on both.
G.R. No. 209202, 19 November 2014
Complainant and seafarer Catalino B. Belmonte initiated a labor complaint for payment of disability benefits, among others, against defendant C.F. Sharp Crew Management, Inc. “Belmonte entered into a six (6) months contract of employment with CFSCMI as A/B Cook on board the vessel M/T Summit, with a basic monthly salary of $698.00. After undergoing the required pre-employment medical examination and being declared fit for sea duty, he was deployed on September 14, 2008.”
Complainant met an accident on board the vessel “when he was used as a human mannequin during an emergency fire drill exercise. A metal ladder accidentally hit the right sternoclavicular part of his body from which he sustained an injury. On December 13, 2008, he was brought to a clinic in France where his x-ray result showed that he has a fracture at the right sternoclavicular bone. As a result, on December 22, 2008, Belmonte was repatriated to the Philippines.”
On his arrival in the Philippines, Belmonte was referred by defendants “to the company-designated physician, Dr. Antonio A. Pobre (Dr. Pobre), an Orthopaedic Surgeon, who issued an Initial Medical Report dated December 23, 2008 assessing Belmonte’s injury as “Fracture, Non-Displaced, Sterno-Clavicular Junction, Right”. In the Follow-Up Report released on January 27, 2009, Dr. Pobre stated that Belmonte’s fracture has fully healed, but he still advised the latter to undergo physical therapy at the right sternoclavicular for at least two weeks. By February 14, 2009, Belmonte had completed three physical therapy sessions. Thus, in Dr. Pobre’s Final Medical Report dated February 17, 2009, Belmonte was declared ‘FIT TO WORK and [can] resume normal sea duties, effective immediately.’”
Complainant instituted this complaint almost after two years from the time he was declared fit to work. “To support his claim, on March 14, 2011, Belmonte consulted a private doctor, Dr. Manuel C. Jacinto, Jr. (Dr. Jacinto), to evaluate and determine his health condition. On even date, Dr. Jacinto issued a medical certificate declaring Belmonte physically unfit to go back to work.”
HELD: Complaint was dismissed. “The entitlement of a seafarer on overseas employment to disability benefits is governed by the medical findings, by law and by the parties’ contract.” Section 20-B of the POEA-SEC laid out the procedure to be followed in assessing the seafarer’s disability in addition to specifying the employer’s liabilities on account of such injury or illness. The same provision also provides that the seafarer is not irrevocably bound by the findings of the company-designated physician as he is allowed to seek a second opinion and consult a doctor of his choice. In case of disagreement between the findings of the company-designated physician and the seafarer’s private physician, the parties shall jointly agree to refer the matter to a third doctor whose findings shall be final and binding on both.”
“A review of the records of this case shows that the pertinent provisions of the parties’ Collective Bargaining Agreement are similar to those found in the 2000 POEA-SEC, that it is the finding of the company-designated physician which is controlling. If the doctor appointed by the seafarer disagrees with the assessment of the company-designated physician, a third doctor may be agreed jointly between the employer and the seafarer. The third doctor’s finding shall be final and binding on both parties. Apparently, this procedure was not availed of by Belmonte.”
“As can be recalled, upon Belmonte’s repatriation on December 22, 2008, he was immediately examined by the company-designated physician on December 23, 2008. From then on, Belmonte was continuously checked up by the company-designated physician, and has also undergone physical therapy sessions. Indeed, Belmonte had been under examination and treatment with the necessary medical procedures by the company specialists. Clearly, the respondents attended to his health condition and shouldered his medical expenses, professional fees and costs of his therapy sessions. Thus, after two months of treatment from the date of repatriation, Belmonte was declared fit to return to work on February 17, 2009 by the company-designated physician.”
“Equally significant is the fact that almost two years had lapsed before Belmonte decided to challenge the assessment of the company-designated physician and filed a complaint before the LA. Then, on March 14, 2011, he sought the opinion of a private doctor who issued the following assessment: “He is physically unfit to go back to work”. This Court notes, however, that Belmonte did so only two months after he had already filed his complaint with the LA. Thus, Belmonte, in fact, had no ground for a disability claim at the time he filed his complaint, since he did not have any sufficient evidentiary basis to support his allegation.” To be clear, his private doctor issued medical certification only after two years and one month from the company-designated physician’s declaration of fit to work. Thus, the certification could not be given any credence “as Belmonte’s health condition could have changed during the interim period due to different factors.” This medical certificate cannot effectively negate the fit to work assessment. Moreover, the private doctor only examined him for a day whereas the company-designated physician closely monitored his medical condition and progress for almost three months, including careful analysis of the results of the diagnostic tests and procedures while he was in consultation with a therapist.
Further, there was no referral made to a third doctor chosen by both CFSCMI and Belmonte as required by Section 20(B), paragraph 3 of the POEA-SEC. “Thus, in the absence of adequate diagnostic tests and procedures and reasonable findings to support the assessments of Belmonte’s private doctor, his certification on Belmonte’s alleged disability simply cannot be taken at face value, particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence supporting the findings of the company-designated physician. The burden of proof rested on Belmonte to establish, by substantial evidence, his entitlement to disability benefits. Sadly, Belmonte failed to discharge this burden.”
In light of the circumstances, the certification from the company-designated physician prevailed. “The Court does so for the following reasons: first, the records show that Belmonte only consulted the private physician after his complaint with the LA has been filed; second, the medical certificate was issued after a one-day consultation; and third, the medical certification was not supported by particular tests or medical procedures conducted on Belmonte that would sufficiently controvert the positive results of those administered to him by the company-designated physician.”
On his assertion that his non-hiring was the most convincing proof of his disability, it is without basis. “It was not a matter of course for CFSCMI to re-hire him after the expiration of his contract. There is also no evidence on record showing that Belmonte sought reemployment with other manning agencies, but was turned down due to his illness.”
“A seafarer’s inability to resume his work after the lapse of more than 120 days from the time he suffered an injury and/or illness is not a magic wand that automatically warrants the grant of total and permanent disability benefits in his favor.” Substantial evidence must still be presented.
“Verily, while the Court adheres to the principle of liberality in favor of the seafarer in construing the POEA-SEC, awards for compensation cannot be made to rest on mere speculations and presumptions.”