Monday, November 5, 2018, 8:45 p.m.
By Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho
Heirs of a deceased seafarer cannot be denied of death benefits even if he dies after his medical repatriation as long as its cause (the work-related injury or illness) had occurred during the term of his employment.
Under the POEA approved employment contract, the employer shall pay his beneficiaries the Philippine Currency equivalent to the amount of Fifty Thousand US dollars (US$50,000) and an additional amount of Seven Thousand US dollars (US$7,000) to each child under the age of twenty-one (21) but not exceeding four (4) children, at the exchange rate prevailing during the time of payment. The amount usually is higher if the death is covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)
The Supreme court awarded the death benefits in the case of Racelis vs. United Philippine Lines (GR No. 198408 November 12, 2014) despite the fact the seafarer ’s death had occurred beyond the term of his employment.
In the course of his last employment contract on board the vessel, the seafarer experienced severe pain in his ears and high blood pressure causing him to collapse while in the performance of his duties. He was medically repatriated on February 20, 2008, and was later diagnosed to be suffering from Brainstem (pontine) Cavernous Malformation. He underwent surgery twice for the said ailment but developed complications and died on March 2, 2008.
The company asserted that the seafarer’s death occurred beyond the term of his employment, considering his prior medical repatriation had the effect of contract termination. , which had supposedly supervened during the term of his employment.
The Supreme Court ruled that while it is true that medical repatriation has the effect of terminating the seafarer’s contract of employment, it is, however, enough that the work-related illness, which eventually becomes the proximate cause of death, occurred while the contract was effective for recovery to be had.
The same principle was used by the Supreme Court in the case of Heirs of the late Edwin Deauna vs. FilStar Maritime Corp. ( G.R. No. 191563 June 20, 2012 ) when it ruled that that at the time of the seafarer’ s death on April 13, 2006, due to Glioblastoma, he was still in the employment of the company. While it is true that the contract considers a seafarer as terminated when he signs off from the vessel due to sickness, a seafarer remains under the company’s employ as long as the former is still entitled to medical assistance and sick pay, and provided that the death which eventually occurs is directly attributable to the sickness which caused the seafarer’s employment to be terminated
Consistent with the State’s avowed constitutional policy to afford full protection to labor, the POEA contract was designed primarily for the protection and benefit of Filipino seafarers in the pursuit of their employment on board ocean-going vessels. As such, it is a standing principle that its provisions are to be construed and applied fairly, reasonably, and liberally in their favor.
Employing the spirit of liberality, the Court recognized that a medical repatriation case constitutes an exception to the second requirement under Section 20 (A) (1) of the POEA contract , i.e., that the seafarer’s death had occurred during the term of his employment, in view of the terminative consequences of a medical repatriation. In essence, the Court held that under such circumstance, the work-related death need not precisely occur during the term of his employment as it is enough that the seafarer’s work-related injury or illness which eventually causes his death had occurred during the term of his employment.
The Court ruled that it would be highly inequitable and even repugnant to the State’s policy on labor to deny heir’s claim for death benefits for the mere technicality triggered by seafarer’s prior medical repatriation. Taking all things into account, the Court reckons that it is by this method of construction that undue prejudice to the laborer and his heirs may be obviated and the State policy on labor protection be championed. For if the laborer’s death was brought about (whether fully or partially) by the work he had harbored for his master’s profit, then it is but proper that his demise be compensated.
(Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)