Burden of disproving disputable presumption of work-relatedness of a seafarer’s illness

The burden to disprove the work-relatedness of an illness is on the employer and not on the seafarer-claimant.

The Supreme Court discussed in the case of Luisito Reyes v. Jebsens Maritime (GR 230502 February 15, 2022) the concept of disputable presumptions in relation to seafarer’s claims for disability benefits.

Halfway through his contract, the seafarer was medically repatriated 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, and the medical condition as not work related since his illness was degenerative in nature. 

The National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) denied the disability benefits because the seafarer failed to substantially show the causal connection between his work and his illness. The NLRC ruled that awards of compensation cannot rest on bare allegations, speculations or presumptions. 

However, the Supreme Court, in affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals, noted that compensability of an illness or injury does not depend on whether the injury or disease was pre-existing at the time of employment but rather on whether the injury or illness is work­ related or had been aggravated by the seafarer’s working condition. 

Under the POEA standard employment contract, work-related illness is defined as any sickness as a result of an occupational disease listed under Sec. 32-A of the contract with the conditions set therein; while work-related injury is an injury arising out of and in the course of employment.

Section 20, par. A(4) categorically provides that those illnesses not listed in Sec. 32 of the contract are disputably presumed as work-related.

The law clearly laid down a legal presumption of work-related illness or injury in favor of seafarers.

This legal presumption was borne by the fact that the said list cannot account for all known and unknown illnesses/diseases that may be associated with, caused or aggravated by such working conditions.

The presumption is made in the law to signify that the non-inclusion in the list of occupational diseases does not translate to an absolute exclusion from disability benefits.

Thus, the burden is on the employer to disprove the work-relatedness, failing which, the disputable presumption that a particular injuryor illness that results in disability is work-related stands.

The Supreme Court pointed out that the labor tribunals erroneously placed the burden of disproving the legal presumption on the seafarer.

The Court stressed that records show that employers failed to dispute the presumption of work-relatedness of seafarer’s injury.

The examinations and procedures the seafarer underwent, as well as the diagnosis, showed a causal connection between his illness or injury and the nature of the work for which he had been contracted.

The disputable presumption that injury or illness that results in disability, or in some cases death, is work-related stands in the absence of contrary evidence.

Compensability pertains to the entitlement to receive compensation and benefits upon showing that work conditions caused or at least increased the risk of the injury or illness.

The seafarer’s work included, among others: the assisting in cargo handling and operations; handling of the vessel, in docking, anchoring, piloting en route, in close quarters and open sea conditions; assisting in mooring and unmooring of the vessel in port and at off-shore locations; and the testing of equipment.

The nature and demand of his work as a seafarer, which the court found to have been physically demanding, aggravated his medical condition resulting in a fracture to his lumbar spine.

The reasonable connection between the nature of his work and the medical condition while on board were substantially proven.

The burden to overcome the presumption is now shifted to the employers.

 The medical report did not make any categorical statement as to the absence of work-relatedness of the injury sustained by the seafarer.

Jurisprudence further states that although the employer is not the insurer of the health of his employees, he takes them as he finds them and assumes the risk of liability.

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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