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Seafarer’s single consultation with his personal doctor and disability benefits

Column box-Dennis Gorecho

The diagnosis of a seafarer’s personal doctor, even if made only after a single consultation, may be used as basis for the grant of disability benefits.

The Supreme Court discussed in the case of Luisito Reyes v. Jebsens Maritime(GR 230502 February 15, 2022) the weight of the conflicting medical certifications between the company-designated physician and the seafarer’s personal doctor, which will be evaluated on its merits and not solely on the frequency of consultations.  

Halfway through his contract, the seafarer was medically repatriated back to the Philippines due to back pain, which he allegedly suffered due to an accident on board the vessel.

He was diagnosed to have suffered “compression fracture L1 secondary to osteoporosis.”

After physical therapy sessions 108 days from repatriation, the company doctor issued a medical certificate declaring him fit to work

The seafarer then consulted two personal doctors who, after thorough history taking and physical examination, issued medical reports with the findings that the seafarer had lost his pre-injury capacity and was unfit to go back to his previous work due to the said impairment.

Due to recurring lower back pain, the seafarer was declared to have permanent disability and permanently unfit in any capacity for further sea duties.

The seafarer filed a complaint before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) for disability benefits, which was dismissed because, among others, the diagnoses and findings of his personal doctors were issued much later and after single consultations with the seafarer without adequate tests to support the same.

Medical findings of the company-designated physician are given weight as such physician is, under the law, obligated to arrive at a definite assessmentof the seafarer’s fitness or degree of disability within a period of 120 days from repatriation, subject to extension of up to 240 days when further medical attention is necessary.

It is the company-designated physician’s duty to issue a final medical assessment of the seafarer’s disability grade or his fitness to work.

As corollary, the seafarer may also consult a physician of his choice.

The Supreme Court, in the instant case, gave more weight to the certifications of the seafarer’s personal doctors than the company-designated physician.

Even if the diagnoses of the seafarer’s second physicians were made only after single consultations, the Supreme Court still found them to be properly supported; as they were based on the very same results of the extensive tests, procedures, and physical therapy sessions of the seafarer, which the company­-designated physician relied upon.

While the final diagnosis of the company­-designated physician deemed the seafarer fit for work, it was also noted therein that the seafarer still reported episodes of numbness in the affected area.

 Although these episodes were rare, tolerable, and would be resolved at the end of the day, this observation is not insignificant in determining the seafarer’s fitness for sea duty, especially in view of the fact that he sought a second medical opinion less than two weeks after his last treatment with the company-designated physician.

As the certification of the company-designated physician would defeat the seafarer’s claim while the opinion of the independent physicians would uphold such claim, the Court stressed that the law looks tenderly on the laborer.

Thus, where the evidence may be reasonably interpreted in two divergent ways, one prejudicial and the other favorable to him, the balance must be tilted in his favor consistent with the principle of social justice.

The Supreme Court noted in Magsaysay v. Buenaventura (GR 195878. January 10, 2018) that the judicial bodies should not adopt the declaration hook, line and sinker as it may be set aside if it is shown that the diagnosis of the company doctor is attended with clear bias, has no scientific basis or is not supported by the medical records of the seafarer.

In Magsaysay v. Bengson (GR 198528, October 13, 2014), the Court disregarded the company doctor’s categorical declaration that the seafarer’s illness is not work-related for being self-serving. The Court sustained the illness’ work-connection as the facts of the case clearly showed the contributory factor of the seafarer’s daily working conditions to the illness suffered, even in the absence of a contrary opinion of other doctors.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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