Almirante: Claims for death benefits and damages for negligence

Petitioners are heirs of Reynaldo A. Andag, who on July 16, 2012 was employed by respondent DMC Construction Equipment Resources Inc. (DMCI) as Second Mate on its tugboat, the M/T Alexander Paul, an inter-island vessel. On October 18, 2013, as the tugboat was towing an overloaded barge, a recoiling rope accidentally struck Reynaldo, causing him to be thrown towards the ship’s iron bars. He died because of the accident.

Months after, DMCI offered petitioners P200,000 representing the proceeds of the accidental death insurance policy it voluntarily secured as compensation to Reynaldo’s death. Petitioners refused the offer as it was conditioned that they would execute a waiver and quitclaim in favor of DMCI. Since DMCI ignored them despite a formal demand letter, petitioners were constrained to file a complaint against respondent seeking payment of death compensation/benefits actual, moral and exemplary damages, attorney’s fees and other money claims.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) holding among others, that petitioners should seek payment of death benefits not from DMCI but from the State Insurance Fund, particularly the SSS. It likewise held that it has no jurisdiction over the claim of damages arising from DMCI’s alleged negligence resulting in the death of Reynaldo as it is a claim based on torts which is cognizable by the regular courts.

Did the Court of Appeals abuse its discretion?

Ruling: No.

Anent the death compensation/benefits, the NLRC aptly noted that while Reynaldo was indeed employed by DMCI as a seafarer, it must nevertheless be pointed out that he was merely deployed in an inter-island vessel sailing domestic waters. This being the case, his employment was not covered by any POEA-Standard Employment Contract typical to employment contracts involving seafarers sailing in international waters—a contract which specifically contains provisions which make an employer liable should a seafarer perish while on duty.

Absent any specific provision in his employment contract with DMCI, Reynaldo’s death on duty is governed by the Labor Code, particularly, Articles 174, 178, 179, and 200 (a) [formerly Articles 168, 172, 173, and 194 (a)] thereof. In this regard, case law instructs that “the clear intent of the law is that the employer should be relieved of the obligation of directly paying his employees compensation for work-connected illness or injury on the theory that this is part of the cost of production or business activity; and that no longer would there be need for adversarial proceedings between an employer and his employee and statutorily specified defenses available to an employer.” Hence, “once the employer pays his share to the fund, all obligation on his part to his employees is ended.” Given the foregoing, the Labor Tribunals correctly ruled that DMCI is not liable for Reynaldo’s death benefits as it is the State Insurance Fund, more particularly the SSS, which is liable therefor.

Anent petitioner’s claim for damages arising from DMCI’s purported negligence which resulted in Reynaldo’s death, the NLRC correctly ruled that petitioners’ allegations in their Position Paper before the LA make out a cause of action for a tort, which is cognizable not by the labor tribunals, but by the regular courts. On this note, while the maintenance of a safe and healthy workplace is ordinarily a subject of labor cases, case law nevertheless clarifies that a claim specifically grounded on the employer’s negligence to provide a safe, healthy and workable environment for its employees is no longer a labor issue, but rather, is a case for quasi-delict which is under the jurisdiction of the regular courts, as in this case. Hence, should petitioners wish to pursue this cause of action against DMCI, it should file the proper case therefor before the regular courts.

As for the claim for additional death benefits, the Court notes that the NLRC already ruled that petitioners are entitled to the amount of P200,000 representing the accidental death insurance proceeds which DMCI voluntarily procured for its employees, such as Reynaldo; and that DMCI should turn over said amount to petitioners sans any condition. (The Heirs of Reynaldo A. Andag, et al. vs. DMC Construction Equipment Resources Inc., et al., G.R. No. 244361, July 13, 2020).


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