MANILA— The Supreme Court has ordered a recruitment firm to pay a Filipino seafarer some $62,024 (P3.2 million) in permanent disability benefits and sickness allowance over a work-related illness due to strenuous workload at sea.
The 88 Aces Maritime Services Inc., its president Janet Jocson, and 88 Aces’ foreign principal Khalifa Algosaibi Diving & Services Co. were held liable to pay Apolinario Zonio, Jr., who developed diabetes after being exposed to physical, mental and emotional stress.
"There was also no showing that Apolinario is predisposed to the illness by reason of genetics, obesity or old age. Such being the case, this Court consider that the stress and strains he was exposed to on board contributed, even to a small degree, to the development of his disease," the high court's 3rd Division said in its 18-page decision dated Oct. 16, 2019, but only made public Wednesday.
Zonio, whose diabetes made him physically unfit to continue work, was also awarded attorney’s fees of 10 percent of the total monetary award, apart from the permanent total disability benefits of $60,000 and sickness allowance of $2,024.
Reversing the decision made by the appellate court on July 31, 2017, the SC said the respondents had the opportunity to refer Zonio to a company-designated physician after his repatriation but did not do so.
"Between the non-existent medical assessment of the company-designated physician and the medical assessment of Apolinario's doctor of choice─ stating that his disability is permanent and total─ the latter evidently stands," read the decision read, penned by SC Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting.
The SC also held that while the illness was not listed as one of the occupational diseases under Section 32(A) of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA)-Standard Employment Contract (SEC), the ailment was presumed work-related under Section 20(B)(4) of the contract.
It stressed that had the respondents granted Zonio’s request to undergo a post-employment medical check-up, they could have presented a medical finding to prove otherwise.
“Having failed to present evidence to defeat the presumption of work-relatedness of Zonio’s diabetes mellitus, the prima facie case that it is work-related prevails,” the high court said.
Zonio was hired as an “ordinary seaman” by 88 Aces on Feb. 4, 2010 to board the vessel M/V Algosaibi 42 for a 6 month-contract, with a basic monthly salary of $506.15.
He completed the contract in Aug. 2010 but was not repatriated after he directly entered into a new contract with 88 Aces’ foreign principal, Khalifa Algosaibi. His new contract with Khalifa Algosaibi lasted until April 2012, during which he was repatriated to Manila.
In May 2015, he filed a complaint before the labor arbiter against the respondents.
Zonio claimed that while on board M/V Algosaibi 42 in 2010, he experienced dizziness and was sent to Salama Hospital in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which had found him to have high glucose and cholesterol.
He was given medicine and advised to observed proper diet and avoid stress. However, in 2012, his dizziness recurred, accompanied by blurring of vision.
He returned to the same hospital and was diagnosed to have diabetes mellitus and dyslipidemia.
After returning to the Philippines in 2012, he reported to 88 Aces to get unpaid wages and to be referred to the company physician, but they refused to shoulder his medical expenses saying he was repatriated as he had already completed his contract.
In 2013, he consulted another doctor who confirmed that his illness was diabetes mellitus. In 2015, he consulted the Municipal Health Officer of the Municipality of San Jose who declared him to be physically unfit to continue work due to his hyperglycemia.
Consequently, he demanded from 88 Aces the payment of his disability benefits, but to no avail.
In 2015, the Labor Arbiter ruled in Apolinario’s favor prompting 88 Aces to elevate the case before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).
The NLRC ruled otherwise, saying the findings of Zonio’s physicians cannot be given weight since their medical certificates were only issued in 2015 or at least 3 years from his repatriation.
It also held that since Apolinario failed to establish that his illness was work-related and that he requested for a post-employment medical examination, his claim for disability benefits must be denied.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the NLRC’s decision and dismissed Zonio's petition, prompting him to elevate the case to the SC.
As an "ordinary seaman," Zonio said his workload included assisting the operation of all deck gear, handling lines in the mooring of the ship and serving as a lookout of the vessel, among others.
He claimed he was exposed to physical and psychological stress due to rush jobs, lack of sleep, heat stress and emergency tasks.