Almirante: Willful death

PETITIONER Sea Power Shipping Enterprises Inc. (Seapower), for and on behalf of its principal, Westward Maritime Corp., hired Warren M. Sabanal as third mate on board MT Montana on July 20, 1995.

Sometime in September 1995 during a voyage, Sabanal started exhibiting unusual behavior. On Sept. 22, 1995, he incoherently responded to questions from the ship captain, who was prompted to set double guards on him. The sailors watching over him reported that he wanted to board a lifeboat, citing danger in the ship’s prow.

Thus, the captain relieved him of his shift.

The following day, he wanted to supervise Sabanal better, so he took him on deck and assigned to him simple tasks such as correcting maps and collecting and typing the crew’s declarations. He observed that Sabanal’s condition was “rather better”.

Later that day, Sabanal requested the sailor-on-guard that he be allowed to return to the deck for some fresh air. Once on deck, Sabanal suddenly ran to the stem and jumped to the sea. The ship’s rescue attempts proved futile, and Sabanal’s body was never recovered.

On May 16, 2005, Elvira, Sabanal’s widow, filed a complaint for payment of his death benefits. Petitioner denied the claim, reasoning that Sabanal’s death resulted from suicide.

When the case reached the Court of Appeals (CA), it concluded that “his actions were borne not by his willful disregard of his safety and of his life, but, on the contrary, he became paranoid that the ship was in grave danger, that he wanted to save himself from the imagined doom that was to befall the ship.” It ordered petitioner to pay death benefits to Elvira.

Did the CA err?

Ruling: Yes.

Since it is undisputed that Sabanal’s death happened during the term of the employment contract, the burden rests on the employer to prove by substantial evidence that Sabanal’s death was directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act. For its part, Seapower submitted the ship log entries and master’s report to prove that Sabanal suddenly jumped overboard the MT Montana.

The Labor Arbiter, NLRC, and Court of Appeals all agree that the evidence presented sufficiently establish that Sabanal indeed jumped into the sea.

The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that Sabanal’s act was not a willful one because he was not in his right mental state when he committed the act. Evidence of insanity or mental sickness may be presented to negate the requirement of willfulness as a matter of counter-defense. But the burden of evidence is then shifted to the claimant to prove that the seafarer was of unsound mind.

The question, therefore, is whether Elvira was able to prove by substantial evidence that Sabanal has lost full control of his faculties when he jumped overboard. Or, more precisely, whether his unusual behavior prior to the incident is such substantial evidence.

In Agile Maritime Resources, Inc. v. Siador (Agile), G.R. No. 191034, October 1, 2014, 737 SCRA 360, 377, which also involved a seafarer jumping overboard, we held that “since the willfulness may be inferred from the physical act itself of the seafarer (his jump into the open sea), the insanity or mental illness required to be proven must be one that deprived him of the full control of his senses; in other words, there must be sufficient proof to negate voluntariness.”

The Court of Appeals, in Agile, similarly relied on the unusual demeanor and actuations by the seafarer a few days before the incident to conclude that the seafarer was no longer in his right mind, and therefore, his act of jumping into the open sea cannot be considered willful.

On petition for review, we reversed the Court of Appeals. We held that the seafarer’s strange behavior alone is insufficient to prove his insanity. Without proof that his mental condition negated the voluntariness he showed in stepping overboard, the Court of Appeals’ finding of insanity was merely speculative.

xxx

Agile and Crewlink are squarely applicable to the present case. Elvira did not present any evidence to support her claim that Sabanal was already insane when he jumped overboard. Similar to the claimant in Agile, she only relied on the strange behavior of Sabanal as detailed by the ship captain in the ship log and master’s report.

However, as we already held, while such behavior may be indicative of a possible mental disorder, it is insufficient to prove that Sabanal had lost full control of his faculties.

For insanity to prosper as a counter-defense, the claimant must substantially prove that the seafarer suffered from complete deprivation of intelligence in committing the act or complete absence of the power to discern the consequences of his action. Mere abnormality of the mental faculties does not foreclose willfulness.

In fact, the ship log shows Sabanal was still able to correct maps and type the declarations of the crew hours before he jumped overboard. The captain observed that Sabanal did not appear to have any problems while performing these simple tasks, while the sailor-on-guard reported that Sabanal did not show any signs of unrest immediately before the incident.

These circumstances, coupled with the legal presumption of sanity, tend to belie Elvira’s claim that Sabanal no longer exercised any control over his own senses and mental faculties. (Jardeleza, J., SC 3rd Division, Seapower Shipping Ent., Inc. v. Heirs of Warren M Sabanal, Represented by Elvira Ong-Sabanal, G.R. No. 198544, June 19, 2017).
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