The Immaterial “Fit to work” Assessment

Does a ‘fit to work” assessment issued by a company-designated physician beyond the 120-day period from the time the seafarer was medically repatriated, bar the latter from securing permanent and total disability benefits?

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Antonio M. Serrano vs. Gallant Maritime Services, Inc. and Marlow Navigation Co., Inc. (G.R. No. 167614, March 24, 2009) has brought clarity and definitiveness to the issue of entitlement to benefits of a seafarer in case he is illegally dismissed. It made certain that the seafarer should receive his salaries for the entire unexpired portion of his contract, and not just for three months.

Given the circumstances obtaining in the case of Carmelito N. Valenzona v. Fair Shipping Corporation and/or Sejin Lines Company Limited (G.R. No. 176884, October 19, 2011), the High Court answered the said question in the negative.

In the said Valenzona case, the seafarer was hired as 2nd Assistant Engineer to work onboard an ocean-going vessel. In the course of his employment, he suffered chest pain and was eventually repatriated to the Philippines only after almost five months of being on the job. He was then diagnosed to have hypertension by the company-designated physician and was continuously treated for six months afterwards.

Because of his prolonged illness, the seafarer consulted a doctor of his choice who diagnosed him to have “hypertensive cardiovascular disease.” He then demanded payment of his sickness allowance and permanently disability benefits.

Thereafter, the company-designated physician issued a certification declaring him as “fit to work.”

Because of this, the seafarer consulted a second doctor of his choice who declared him ‘unfit to work in any capacity.’ Accordingly, he filed his complaint for payment of disability benefits, among others.

The Labor Arbiter, and later the National Labor Relations Commission and the Court of Appeals, denied the claim of the seafarer for disability benefits, noting that he was declared fit to work by the company designated physician and that the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) refers only to disabilities caused by accidents and not by illness.

The Supreme Court however, reversed the said rulings and ruled in favor of the seafarer.

The Court made it clear that the seafarer’s disability is considered permanent and total because the “fit to work” certification was issued by the company-designated physician only after the lapse of the 120 days from the date the seafarer was medically-repatriated to the country.

It is of no moment if the company designated physician assessed the seafarer as fit to work. What is significant is that the seafarer was unable to work for more than 120 days from his date of repatriation and was only certified fit to work after 199 days from said repatriation date.

In other words, the claim of disability benefits is not dependent on the company designated physician’s certification that the seafarer is disabled, but rather on the fact that the seafarer was unable to work for more than 120 days from his medical repatriation, following the Labor Code concept of permanent total disability and prevailing jurisprudence on the subject.

Article of Atty. Augusto R. Bundang originally published in the January-February 2012 issue of Tinig ng Marino

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