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Compensability of a seafarer’s pre-existing illness

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO September 18,2018 - 12:53 AM


A pre-existing illness, or an ailment that was contracted prior to his employment, will not deprive a seafarer of compensation benefits as long as it is diagnosed during the effectivity of his recent contract.

The Supreme Court recently considered colorectal cancer as a compensable illness in the recent case of Skippers United Pacific, Inc., vs Estelito Lagne (G.R. No. 217036 August 20, 2018).

The company argued that the seafarer is not entitled to any disability compensation since rectosigmoid adenocarcinoma, or colorectal cancer, is not listed as one of the occupational diseases under Section 32-A of the POEA Standard Employment Contract. They insisted that the same is not connected with his duties as an oiler and, therefore, is not compensable under the provisions of the POEA contract.

For disability to be compensable under Section 20(4) of the POEA contract, two elements must concur: 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 employment contract.

The POEA contract defines a work-related injury as “injury(ies) resulting in disability or death arising out of and in the course of employment,” and a work-related illness as “any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of this Contract with the conditions set therein satisfied.”

For illnesses not mentioned under Section 32, the POEA contract creates a disputable presumption in favor of the seafarer that these illnesses are work­-related. However, notwithstanding the presumption, the Supreme Court have held that on due process grounds, the claimant-seafarer must still prove by substantial evidence that his work conditions caused or, at least, increased the risk of contracting the disease. This is because awards of compensation cannot rest entirely on bare assertions and presumptions. In order to establish compensability of a non-occupational disease, reasonable proof of work­ connection is sufficient – direct causal relation is not required.

Thus, probability, not the ultimate degree of certainty, is the test of proof in compensation proceedings.

Under the POEA contract, an illness shall be considered as pre-existing if prior to the processing of the POEA contract, any of the following conditions are present (a) the advice of a medical doctor on treatment was given for such continuing illness or condition; or the seafarer had been diagnosed and has knowledge of such an illness or condition but failed to disclose the same during pre-employment medical examination (PEME), and such cannot be diagnosed during the PEME.

Despite its non-inclusion in the list of occupational illnesses, the Supreme Court held that the seafarer is entitled to compensation for his colorectal cancer when it utilized the aggravation principle wherein his work conditions caused or, at least, increased the risk of contracting the disease.

Even if colorectal cancer is considered as a pre-existing illness, the Supreme Court granted the compensation as it noted that what matters is that his work had contributed, even in a small degree, to the development of the disease. Neither is it necessary, in order to recover compensation, that the seafarer must have been in perfect health at the time he contracted the disease. A worker brings with him possible infirmities in the course of his employment, and while the employer is not the insurer of the health of the employees, he takes them as he finds them and assumes the risk of liability.

The Court took judicial notice of the seafarer’s food provisions on a ship which are produced at one time for long journeys across the oceans and seas. The food provided to seafarers are mostly frozen meat, canned goods and seldom are there vegetables which easily rot and wilt and, therefore, impracticable for long trips. These provisions undoubtedly contributed to the aggravation of seafarer’s rectal illness.

Moreover, considering the manual and laborious job that the seafarer does, the seafarer was able to reasonably prove that his working conditions exposed him to factors that could have aggravated his medical condition. He felt pain on his anus whenever he carries heavy weights, chest pains and difficulty in breathing during his work, and the increasing size of the protruding rectal mass.

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TAGS: illness, seafarers

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