PETITIONER Wilhelmsen Smith Bell Manning Inc. on behalf of its principal Wilhelmsen Ship Management Ltd., hired respondent Franklin J. Villaflor as third engineer on board their vessel M/V NOCC Puebla on a seven-month contract dated Aug. 22, 2012. Respondent underwent the required pre-employment medical examinations (PEME) and was pronounced fit to work. On Sept. 5, 2012, he boarded the vessel.
Sometime in March 2013, while conducting maintenance works on the vessel and lifting heavy engine and generator spare parts with his crewmates, respondent felt severe back pain which caused him to fall on his knees. Upon advice of the Master he was medically repatriated on March 28, 2013.
In Manila, petitioners referred respondent to Marine Medical Services for examination. Dr. William Chuasuan, Jr. gave respondent a disability grading of eight or 2/3 loss of lifting power of the trunk. Upon the other hand, Dr. Manuel C. Jacinto, Jr. whom respondent consulted issued a medical certificate stating that respondent’s disability is total and the cause of the injury is work-related/work-aggravated, thus, declaring him unfit to work as a seafarer. Hence, he filed a complaint for total permanent disability against petitioners.
In defense, petitioners alleged that respondent’s condition was merely brought about by the recurrence of his lumbar problem from his previous employment, for which he had already claimed total and permanent disability from his previous employer.
Is there merit to this defense?
For disability to be compensable under Section 20(A) of the 2010 Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), the two elements must concur: (1) the injury or illness must be work-related; and (2) the work-related injury or illness must have existed during the term of the seafarer’s contract. The POEA-SEC defines work-related injury as one “arising out of and in the course of employment.” Jurisprudence is to the effect that compensable illness or injury cannot be confined to the strict interpretation of said provision in the POEA-SEC as even pre-existing conditions may be compensable if aggravated by the seafarer’s working condition. It is not necessary that the nature of the employment be the sole and only reason for the illness or injury suffered by the seafarer. It is sufficient that there is a reasonable linkage between the disease suffered by the employee and his work to lead a rational mind to conclude that his work may have contributed to the establishment or, at the very least, aggravation of any pre-existing condition he might have had (Dohle-Philmn Manning Agency Inc v. Heirs of Andres G. Gazzingan, 760 Phil. 861, 878 (2015).
Thus, the CA correctly ruled that petitioners could not harp on the fact of respondent’s previous disability benefits complaint against his former employer to support their argument that respondent’s condition is not work-related as it is pre-existing. It is noteworthy that despite such back injury history, respondent was able to pass all the required tests in the PEME. It should also be pointed out that petitioners were aware of such history as respondent disclosed the same in his PEME. Nevertheless, petitioners engaged his services. Hence, while it may be true that respondent’s back injury is a recurrence of his previous condition, still, such recurrence can be attributed to the nature of his work on board petitioner’s vessel. As found by the CA, the normal duties of a Third Engineer include daily maintenance and operation of the engine room, which entail activities such as lifting of heavy materials and spare parts. It was also established that respondent felt pain in his back while lifting some heavy spare engine parts during maintenance operations with his co-workers. That respondent’s condition is work-aggravated and as such, compensable, cannot be denied. (Wilhelmsen Smith Bell Manning Inc., et al. vs. Franklin J. Villaflor, G.R. 225425, Jan. 29, 2020).