A fit-to-work certification by a company doctor can be set aside by the courts because the inherent merit of the case will still be weighed and duly considered.
In most seafarer cases for disability or death benefits claims, employers deny their liability to pay benefits by pointing to the medical reports of the company-designated physician that the seafarer’s illness is not work-connected, that he is fit to work, or that the compensation is limited to a lower amount based on a low disability grading.
Such assessment is arrived at after the seafarer submits himself to the company doctor for a post employment medical examination within three days from his repatriation.
While the company doctor must declare the nature of a seafarer’s disability, the Supreme Court stressed in several rulings that courts are not bound by the medical findings of the company doctors.
Said declaration is not conclusive and final upon the court in the determination of compensation cases filed by Filipino seafarers,
In the case of OSM Maritime Services vs Nelson Go (G.R. No. 238128 February 17 2021), the Supreme Court disregarded the fit to-work assessment issued by the company doctor noting that it does not mirror the true condition of the claimant in terms of his ability to resume seafarer duties.
The seafarer was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, which is described as an incurable disorder of the inner ear that causes severe dizziness, ringing sound in the ears, intermittent hearing loss, and feeling of ear pressure or pain.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that Meniere’s Disease is work-related and cited the medical certification issued by the seafarer’s private physician who stated that the nature of the seafarer’s employment as Oiler/Motorman onboard the vessel is the cause of his illness and/or aggravated the same.
His work as an Oiler/Motorman onboard the vessel exposed him to loud and deafening engine noises, engine heat, and harmful chemicals inherent in engine oils.
Taking into account his length of service as an Oiler/Motorman, the seafarer’s continued exposure to these health hazards onboard the vessel had contributed mainly to a very great possibility for him to contract the illnesses and/or having aggravated the same while onboard the vessel.
According to the assessment of the company-designated physician, the seafarer is fit to return to sea duties, contrary to the findings of the private physician.
The overall situation of the seafarer proves that he is unfit for sea duty.
The Court noted that the seafarer failed his Pre-Employment Medical Examination (PEME) because he was found to be unfit for sea duties due to Meniere’s Disease. This means that, ultimately, the seafarer cannot be given the proper clearance to resume his occupation even if he was found to be fit to work by the company doctor.
The medical findings in the PEME regarding the seafarer’s unfitness to return to work was also verified and confirmed by the assessment of the private doctor when the latter issued his medical certificate.
Due to the permanent and incurable nature of the Meniere’s Disease, which would indefinitely deprive the seafarer gainful employment and the opportunity to earn therefrom, the Supreme Court resolved to grant the seafarer the full amount of disability benefits.
Fit-To-Work certifications are even given to seafarers who are still not cured or in essence can no longer be employed.
The findings cannot be taken as “gospel truth” due to the proliferation of obviously biased company doctors. (Wallem vs. NLRC 318 SCRA 623)
The Supreme Court noted in Magsaysay v. Buenaventura (GR 195878. January 10, 2018) that the judicial bodies should not adopt the declaration hook, line and sinker as it may be set aside if it is shown that the diagnosis of the company doctor is attended with clear bias, has no scientific basis or is not supported by the medical records of the seafarer.
The company doctor’s assessment does not evince irrefutable and conclusive weight in assessing the compensability of an illness as the seafarer has the right to seek a second opinion from his preferred physician (Cadornigara v. NLRC, 538 SCRA 363).
Said rulings were based on the prevailing doctrine that “disability is intimately related to the worker’s capacity to earn, and what is compensated is not his injury or illness but his inability to work resulting in the impairment of his earning capacity. Thus, disability has been construed less on its medical significance but more on the loss of earning capacity.” (Ilustricimo v. NYK-Fil Ship Management Inc., GR 237487, June 27, 2018.)
Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail [email protected], or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786)