Seafarer still gets P5-M claim for injury from game played on ship
The Supreme Court has ordered a ship management company and its corporate officers to pay $90,000, or about P5 million, in disability benefits to a seafarer who tore his ankle while playing basketball on a vessel during his free time.
In a 21-page decision penned by Associate Justice Samuel Gaerlan, the high court’s Third Division granted the petition of Rosell Arguilles seeking to reverse the January 2020 decision and November 2020 resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA) that denied his labor case against his former employer Wilhelmsen-Smith Bell Manning Inc.
In a statement summarizing the decision, the high court cited a provision in the Department of Labor and Employment Order No. 130, series of 2013, stating that the terms and conditions of seafarers’ employment shall be governed by the 2010 Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s Standard Employment Contract (POEA SEC).
In that contract, a work-related injury is defined as an “injury arising out of and in the course of employment,” which does not require that seafarers suffer an injury during the actual performance of their duties.
The high court added that the same policy also provided that a seafarer’s contract of employment shall be effective until his or her date of arrival at the point of hire upon termination of his or her employment.
Arguilles had sued Wilhelmsen Manning, its principal Wilhelmsen Ship Management Ltd. (WSML), and Fausto Preysler Jr., after the company terminated his treatment for a tear on his Achilles tendon for which he had undergone surgery and physical therapy sessions.
The petitioner, who had been employed as an ordinary seaman by Wilhelmsen Manning on behalf of WSML on board the vessel MV Toronto, incurred the injury while playing basketball with colleagues on Dec. 26, 2016.
Arguilles was medically repatriated to the Philippines and referred to Wilhelmsen Manning’s company-designated physicians for evaluation.
He underwent therapy between February and June 2017, but Wilhemsen Manning terminated his treatment allegedly because his work-related injury was too severe to be resolved within 120 days. Arguilles later consulted an independent physician who then declared him unfit for duty.
When his request for disability benefits from the respondents went unheeded, Arguilles filed a complaint in the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) arbitration branch.
The labor arbiter initially decided in Arguilles’ favor and ordered the respondents to pay the latter the amount of $90,000 plus P450,000 in moral and exemplary damages.
On appeal, the NLRC maintained the finding of disability in Arguilles’ favor but reduced the amount awarded to him by the labor arbiter.
But when the respondents moved to reconsider, the NLRC completely reversed its findings and ordered the dismissal of Arguilles’ claims, court records showed.
The CA affirmed the NLRC’s final decision, prompting the petitioner to the Supreme Court.
In a comment submitted to the high tribunal, the respondents insisted that the appellate court had correctly ruled in their favor, stressing that Arguilles’ injury was not work-related and not subject to compensation.
They added that Arguilles, after undergoing treatment and rehabilitation, had been declared “fit to work” by the company-designated physician and that his monetary claims must be denied.
But the high court ruled that an employer was duty-bound to provide a seaworthy ship for the seafarer and take all reasonable precautions to prevent accident and injury to the crew.
“It is beyond cavil that petitioner’s injury was sustained while his employment contract was still in effect and while he was still on board MV Toronto,” it said.
“Accordingly, he suffered his injury in the course of his employment. This squarely falls within the POEA SEC’s definition of a work-related injury,” the court ruled.
Not being reckless
But the Supreme Court made it clear that not all injuries sustained by a seafarer on board a ship could be subject to compensation, as employers were never intended to be insurers against all accidental injuries their employees might incur during employment.
The high court said the burden was on the respondents to prove by substantial evidence that the injury incurred by Arguilles during his employment was directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act.
The court said the petitioner was “merely playing basketball, an employer-sanctioned activity onboard the vessel.”
“It cannot be considered as a reckless or deliberate activity that is unmindful of one’s safety,” it said.
“The records are bereft of any evidence, much less the slightest indication, that the injury suffered by [Arguilles] was intentionally or negligently incurred. Thus, his injury is worthy of compensation,” it ruled.
The high court also imposed an interest of 6 percent per year on the total monetary award, starting from the date of finality of judgment until fully paid.