[ G.R. No. 227447, June 23, 2020 ]
MAGSAYSAY MARITIME CORPORATION, MASTERBULK PTE. LTD., AND/OR MARLON P. TRINIDAD, PETITIONERS, VS. HEIRS OF FRITZ D. BUENAFLOR REPRESENTED BY HONORATA G. BUENAFLOR, RESPONDENTS.
REYES, J. JR., J.:
This resolves the Petition for Review on Certiorari1 under Rule 45 of the Revised Rules of Court, seeking the reversal of the Decision2 dated December 18, 2015 and Resolution3 dated September 29, 2016 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA G.R. SP. No. 137820. In the assailed issuances, the CA annulled the Decision dated July 30, 2014 and Resolution dated August 29, 2014 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), which reversed the decision of the Labor Arbiter.
Fritz D. Buenaflor (Buenaflor) was employed as Second Mate by Petitioner Magsaysay Maritime Corporation (Magsaysay), a manning agency organized under Philippine laws, for and on behalf of its foreign principal, Petitioner Masterbulk Pte. Ltd. (Masterbulk), under a Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA)-approved employment contract dated February 6, 2012, for a duration of nine months. Buenaflorrs employment commenced upon his embarkation aboard the vessel INVENTANA on May 9, 2012.
In March 2013, Buenaflor experienced persistent pain on the right side of his abdomen. On March 13, 2013, Buenaflor was referred to Meyer Hospital in the Port of Santos, Sao Paolo, Brazil for diagnostic procedures. After the initial test and examination, Buenaflor was diagnosed with "intra liver nodules and Retroperitoneal lymphadenopathy." On March 18, 2013, Buenaflor was admitted at the said hospital where he underwent a liver biopsy. The result of the biopsy showed that Buenaflor was suffering from "infiltrated adenocarcinoma in the liver parenchyma." Thus, the attending physician recommended that Buenaflor be considered unfit for duty and repatriated for further medical treatment.
On March 25, 2013, Buenaflor was repatriated to the Philippines. Upon his arrival in the country, Magsaysay referred him to Manila Doctors Hospital (MDH) for medical examination under the care of Dr. Benigno A. Agbayani, Jr. (Dr. Agbayani), the company-designated physician. After undergoing CT scan procedure and guided biopsy, and being evaluated by an oncologist, Buenaflor was diagnosed with "primary liver cancer vs. metastatic liver disease." Hence, Buenaflor underwent chemoemobilization of the liver mass, and subsequently, chemotherapy. Buenaflor, however, did not respond well to these procedures.
Dr. Agbayani reported that Buenaflor was suffering from "Adenocarcinoma of the Liver with Peripancreatic Metastases, Retroperitoneal Metastases, Lung Metastases, Malignant Ascites, S/P Chemoemobilization, Stage IV." He further opined that Buenaflor's ailment is work-related only if he was exposed to chemicals.
Due to difficulty in getting blood donors in Manila, Dr. Agabayani recommended that Buenaflor's radiotherapy and chemotherapy procedures be transferred to his home province, Iloilo. Thus, on July 26, 2013, Buenaflor was discharge from MDH and transferred to Iloilo Doctors Hospital. Unfortunately, Buenaflor passed away on August 2, 2013 due to "Cardiopulmonary Arrest Secondary to Hepatocellular CA Stage IV."
On November 12, 2013, the heirs of Buenaflor, represented by his wife, Honorata G. Buenaflor (respondents), initiated a complaint for death benefits, attorney's fees and damages against petitioners Magsaysay, Masterbulk and Marlon P. Trinidad (Trinidad), the Fleet Director of Magsaysay, before the Labor Arbiter.
On February 27, 2014, the Labor Arbiter dismissed the complaint as there was no evidence that Buenaflor's liver cancer was caused or aggravated by, or related to, his work. The Labor Arbiter further ruled that the ship where Buenaflor worked as Second Mate was a general cargo/ container, and as such, the goods shipped were enclosed in large metal containers. For humanitarian reasons, however, the Labor Arbiter awarded the sum of US$5,000.00, and attorney's fees, equivalent to 10% of the monetary award, to respondents.
Not satisfied with the decision of the Labor Arbiter, respondents appealed the case to the NLRC. On July 30, 2014, the NLRC granted the appeal and reversed the decision of the Labor Arbiter. The NLRC ruled that the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), of which Buenaflor is covered, clearly intended to compensate any injury or death suffered by an officer regardless of its nature or circumstance. The NLRC further held that when Buenaflor died four months after his repatriation, he was still under Magsaysay. The dispositive portion of said decision reads:
WHEREFORE, upon the premises, the Decision dated 27 February 2014 of Labor Arbiter Edgar M. Madriaga is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. In lieu thereof, judgment is hereby rendered ordering respondents Magsaysay Maritime Corporation and Masterbulk Pte. Ltd. To PAY complainants, jointly and severally, at the rate of exchange at the time of payment, the following amounts:
(a) US $180,000.00 as death benefits;
(b) US $14,000.00 as allowance to minor children Kyrie Guzman Buenaflor and Yhancy Guzman Buenaflor; and
(c) Ten (10%) percent of the total judgment award or US $18,700.00 as attorney's fees.
Petitioners sought the reconsideration of the NLRC's decision, but the NLRC denied their motion in its Resolution dated August 29, 2014.
Petitioners then turned to the CA, through a Petition for Certiorari, ascribing grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC for finding that Buenaflor's death was compensable under the Masterbulk Agreement, and for awarding additional allowance to Buenaflor's minor children, and attorney's fees.
On December 18, 2015, the CA, not finding grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC in issuing the Decision dated July 30, 2014 and Resolution dated August 29, 2014, dismissed their Petition for Certiorari. The CA ruled that petitioners erred in claiming that at the time Buenaflor experienced the symptoms of his illness, his contract had already been terminated. The CA pointed out that in the certification issued by Magsaysay, Buenaflor signed off on March 25, 2013, the day of his repatriation. According to the CA, petitioners failed to explain why Buenaflor was still aboard its vessel on March 13, 2013 when his contract already ended in February 2013. The CA concluded that Buenaflor's employment contract transcended beyond the nine-month period and his employment was extended. Thus, the CA ruled that the NLRC was correct in ruling that Buenaflor was still under petitioners' employ at the time he experienced the symptoms of his illness.
On September 29, 2016, the CA likewise denied petitioners' Motion for Reconsideration for failing to raise any new matter that would merit the modification or reversal of its decision.
On October 21, 2016, petitioners filed their Petition for Review on Certiorari where they asserted that the CA erred in finding respondents entitled to death benefits, additional allowance and attorney's fees.
Petitioners maintain that under the Masterbulk CBA and even under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), a seafarer's death is compensable if it occurred during the term of his employment. They argued that Buenaflor's death is not compensable as it happened after the expiration of his employment contract. According to petitioners, since Buenaflor signed a nine-month long contract, such contract already terminated in February 2013, the ninth month following his embarkation on May 9, 2012. Thus, petitioners assert that when Buenaflor's illness manifested in March 2013 and when he died few months thereafter, his contract already ended and he was no longer under their employ.
Petitioners further argue that Buenaflor's cause of death is not work-related, rendering him not entitled to disability benefits under the POEA-SEC. Petitioners posit that cancer is not necessarily work-related and may be caused by factors outside of one's work. Thus, petitioners insist that the correlation between Buenaflor's nature of work and the illness which caused his death should have been proven.
Petitioners also reiterate that since Buenaflor did not die as a result of a work-related illness and his death did not occur during the term of his employment, his minor children are not entitled to allowance under the POEA-SEC. They further maintain that respondents are also not entitled to attorney's fees since they failed to show that petitioners willfully caused loss or injury to them.
The Ruling of the Court
The NLRC decisions brought before the CA are final and executory in nature4 and can only be reversed on a finding of grave abuse of discretion.5 In reviewing the NLRC cases brought before it through a Rule 65 Petition, the CA merely corrects errors of jurisdiction or acts committed without jurisdiction or in excess of jurisdiction, or grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.6 It does not address mere errors of judgment, unless such errors overstep the bounds of the NLRC's jurisdiction.7
This Court, in reviewing the present Rule 45 Petition, is bound by the intrinsic limitations of the Rule 65 proceedings.8
In resolving a Rule 45 review of the CA's decision in labor cases rendered under Rule 65 of the Revised Rules of Court, the Court merely looks into the legal errors that the CA may have committed in determining the presence or the absence of grave abuse of discretion in the NLRC decision that it reviewed.9
The question to ask is: did the CA correctly determine whether the NLRC committed grave abuse of discretion in ruling on the case?10
It also settled that in a Rule 45 review, only questions of law may be raised before the Court.11 In Jebsen Maritime, Inc. v. Ravena,12 however, this Court ruled that "(I)n situations where insufficient or insubstantial evidence have been adduced to support the findings under review, or when conclusions go beyond bare and incomplete facts submitted by the claimant, grave abuse of discretion may result and the Court is permitted to address factual issues." In such instance, the Court's factual review power is only to the extent necessary to determine whether the CA correctly found no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC in finding that respondents are entitled to death benefits.13
Thus, guided by the foregoing, the Court now proceeds to determine whether or not the CA erred in ruling that the NLRC did not act with grave abuse of discretion in finding petitioners liable for death benefits, allowance for minor children of Buenaflor, and attorney's fees.
Compensability of Buenaflor's Death
"The terms and conditions of a seafarer's employment, including claims for death and disability benefits, is a matter governed, not only by medical findings, but by the contract he entered into with his employer and the law which is deemed integrated therein."14 The POEA Memorandum Circular No. 10, Series of 2010, entitled 'Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Overseas Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Ships,' which provides the minimum requirements acceptable to the POEA for the employment of Filipino seafarers on board ocean-going vessels, is deemed integrated into the employment contract that Buenaflor entered into with petitioners. In addition, Buenaflor's employment contract is covered by the Masterbulk Vessels Maritime Officers' Agreement 2011, which was valid from January 1, 2011 until December 31, 2012, and by the Masterbulk Vessels Maritime Officers' Agreement 2013, which was valid from January 1, 2013 until December 31, 2014 ("Masterbulk Agreement").
The CA, in deciding in favor of respondents, applied the Masterbulk Agreement, as according to it, they are most favorable to the seafarers and are not contrary to law, morals, public order or public policy. According to the CA, the NLRC correctly held that the coverage of the compensation for injury or death benefits under Section 28 of the Masterbulk Agreement is too encompassing in that it does not require that the cause of injury or death be work-related. Section 28 of the Masterbulk Agreement pertinently states:
28. COMPENSATION FOR INJURY OR DEATH
-1 x x x x
-2 Compensation shall be paid as stipulated in sub-clause (1) of this clause for all injuries howsoever caused, regardless of whether or not an officer comes within the scope of the Work Injury Compensation Act and includes accidents arising or not arising out of the course of his employment and accidents arising outside the working hours of the injured or dead officer.
x x x x
-6 If an officer dies during service onboard through any case including death from natural causes or death occurring whilst travelling to and from the vessel, or as a result of marine or other similar peril, the Company shall pay the maximum amount of compensation for the affected officer as shown in Appendix IV to this Agreement. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)
We, however, find that the CA proceeded from an incorrect framework in deciding the case. It is incorrect to state that the Masterbulk Agreement is most favorable to Buenaflor without first determining whether his illness and resulting death are covered by the terms and conditions thereof. The determination of which is more favorable between the Masterbulk Agreement and POEA-SEC is proper only when it has been established that Buenaflor's death is compensable under both.
A review of the Masterbulk Agreement shows that Buenaflor's death is not within its coverage.1âшphi1 The terms and conditions under Section 28 of the Masterbulk Agreement which the NLRC applied in assessing the compensability of Buenaflor's death is limited to 1) injuries, and 2) death during service on board, occurring while travelling to and from the vessel, or death caused by marine or other similar peril. The term "injury" has a technical meaning under the Labor Code. It pertains to any harmful change in the human organism from any accident arising out of and in the course of the employment.15 This technical definition brings Buenaflor's liver cancer out of the coverage of Section 28 of the Masterbulk Agreement.
While the CA and the NLRC are correct in saying that death under the Masterbulk Agreement is compensable regardless of its cause, the Masterbulk Agreement, however, limited this compensability to deaths during service on board, occurring while travelling to and from the vessel, or to deaths caused by marine or other similar peril. Thus, Buenaflor's death which occurred in the Philippines few months after his repatriation also does not fall under the coverage of Section 28 of the Masterbulk Agreement.
Employment contracts or CBAs may enlarge the minimum requirements of the POEA-SEC to make them more favorable and beneficial to the employees. However, in case of insufficiency in the terms and conditions of the employment contract or CBA, which renders the seafarer unqualified or unable to claim benefits therein, the POEA-SEC operates to fill the gaps in order to raise the seafarers' benefits to the minimum.
Sec. 20 (B)(1)(4) of the POEA-SEC provides for compensation for work-related illnesses and deaths which may not occur under the circumstances specified, but existed during the term of the seafarer's contract. This Section pertinently reads:
SECTION 20. COMPENSATION AND BENEFITS. —
B. COMPENSATION AND BENEFITS FOR DEATH
1. In case of work-related death of the seafarer during the term of his contract, the employer shall pay his beneficiaries the Philippine Currency equivalent to the amount of Fifty Thousand US dollars (US$50,000) and an additional amount of Seven Thousand US dollars (US$7,000) to each child under the age of twenty-one (21) but not exceeding four (4) children, at the exchange rate prevailing during the time of payment.
x x x x
4. The other liabilities of the employer when the seafarer dies as a result of work-related injury or illness during the term of employment are as follows:
a. The employer shall pay the deceased's beneficiary all outstanding obligations due the seafarer under this Contract.
b. The employer shall transport the remains and personal effects of the seafarer to the Philippines at employer's expense except if the death occurred in a port where local government laws or regulations do not permit the transport of such remains. In case death occurs at sea, the disposition of the remains shall be handled or dealt with in accordance with the master's best judgment. In all cases, the employer/master shall communicate with the manning agency to advise for disposition of seafarer's remains.
c. The employer shall pay the beneficiaries of the seafarer the Philippines currency equivalent to the amount of One Thousand US dollars (US$1,000) for burial expenses at the exchange rate prevailing during the time of payment. (Emphasis supplied)
Applying the above rule, the Court established that in order for the beneficiaries of a seafarer to be entitled to death compensation from the employer, it must be proven that the death of the seafarer (1) is work-related; and (2) occurred during the term of his contract16
A. Buenaflor's Illness and Resulting Death are Work-Related
Work-related death refers to death which results from a work-related injury or illness.17 A work-related illness, on the other hand, pertains to any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC, which are compensable if the conditions stated therein are satisfied.18
This, however, does not mean that only those listed in Section 32-A are compensable. Under Section 20(A)(4) of the POEA-SEC, those illnesses not listed in Section 32-A are disputably presumed as work-related.
A disputable presumption has been defined as a specie of evidence that may be accepted and acted on when there is no other evidence to uphold the contention for which it stands, or one which may be overcome by other evidence.19 Moreover, Section 3, Rule 131, of the Rules of Court states that a disputable presumption is satisfactory if uncontradicted and not overcome by other evidence. In the case of Spouses Surtida v. Rural Bank of Malinao (Albay), Inc.,20 we explained the effects of disputable presumption as follows:
A presumption may operate against an adversary who has not introduced proof to rebut it. The effect of a legal presumption upon a burden of proof is to create the necessity of presenting of evidence unless rebutted.
To state it simply, unless overcome by contrary evidence, the disputable presumption stands.
In the case of Racelis v. United Philippines Lines Inc.,21 this Court held that:
While it is true that Brainstem (pontine) Cavernous Malformation is not listed as an occupational disease under Section 32-A of the 2000 POEA-SEC, Section 20 (B) (4) of the same explicitly provides that "[t]he liabilities of the employer when the seafarer suffers work-related injury or illness during the term of his contract are as follows: (t)hose illnesses not listed in Section 32 of this Contract are disputably presumed as work related." In other words, the 2000 POEA-SEC "has created a disputable presumption in favor of compensability[,] saying that those illnesses not listed in Section 32 are disputably presumed as work-related. This means that even if the illness is not listed under Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC as an occupational disease or illness, it will still be presumed as work-related, and it becomes incumbent on the employer to overcome the presumption." This presumption should be overturned only when the employer's refutation is found to be supported by substantial evidence, which, as traditionally defined is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion." (Emphasis supplied; citations omitted)
Similarly, in Phil-Man Marine Agency, Inc. v. Dedace, Jr.,22 this Court ruled that the disputable presumption under Section 20(A)(4) operates in favor of the employee and the burden rests upon his or her employer to overcome the statutory presumption. As this Court found that petitioners in the said case failed to present sufficient controverting evidence to overthrow the disputable presumption that the seafarer's illness is work-related, the benefits prayed for by the claimant was awarded.23
Buenaflor, in this case, died of liver cancer, a disease which is not listed under Section 32-A of the POEA-SEC. Under Section 20(A)(4), Buenaflor's illness and his resulting death are work-related. Magsaysay and Masterbulk have the burden to present contrary evidence to overcome this presumption, but failed to do so. The company-designated physician reported that Buenaflor was suffering from liver cancer and opined that this illness is work-related only if he was exposed to chemicals. It bears pointing out that with this opinion, the company-designated physician did not totally cancel out the possibility that Buenaflor's illness is work-related. However, by simply stating his opinion in such manner, and by failing to justify why he made such assessment, this opinion is a bare claim which we must reject. The opinion of the company-designated physician is insufficient to overthrow the presumption that Buenaflor's illness and resulting death are work-related.
We are not unmindful of previous pronouncements made by this Court to effect that claimants must still prove by substantial evidence that his work condition caused, or increased the risk of contracting his/her illness. However, in Phil-Man Marine Agency, Inc,24 this Court clarified that when the company-designated physician was not able to give a full, complete, and categorical medical assessment on the illness of the seafarer, the disputable presumption under Section 20(A)(4) stands. In the said case, this Court emphasized that to rule otherwise would render the statutory presumption under this Section nugatory.25
Thus, Buenaflor's illness and his resulting death are work-related.
B. Buenaflor's Death Occurred During the Term of his Contract
The present case falls under the exception to the general rule that death in order to be compensable must occur during the term of his contract, as pronounced in the case of Canuel v. Magsaysay Maritime Corporation:26 In Canuel, this Court ruled that:
With respect to the second requirement for death compensability, the Court takes this opportunity to clarify that while the general rule is that the seafarer's death should occur during the term of his employment, the seafarer's death occurring after the termination of his employment due to his medical repatriation on account of a work-related injury or illness constitutes an exception thereto. This is based on a liberal construction of the 2000 POEA-SEC as impelled by the plight of the bereaved heirs who stand to be deprived of a just and reasonable compensation for the seafarer's death, notwithstanding its evident work-connection.
x x x x
Thus, considering the constitutional mandate on labor as well as relative jurisprudential context, the rule, restated for a final time, should be as follows: if the seafarer's work-related injury or illness (that eventually causes his medical repatriation and, thereafter, his death, as in this case) occurs during the term of his employment, then the employer becomes liable for death compensation benefits under Section 20 (A) of the 2000 POEA-SEC. The provision cannot be construed otherwise for to do so would not only transgress prevailing constitutional policy and deride the bearings of relevant case law but also result in a travesty of fairness and an indifference to social justice. (Emphasis supplied)
Buenaflor experienced the symptoms of his illness in March 2013, while he was still on board the vessel. In the certification issued by Magsaysay, Buenaflor signed off on March 25, 2013, the day of his repatriation. While Magsaysay claims that Buenaflor's contract expired in February 2013, it did not explain why Buenaflor was still on board its vessel in March 2013. Thus, we agree with the CA's conclusion that Buenaflor's employment contract transcended beyond the nine-month period and his employment was extended.
This conclusion conforms with Section 18(A) of the POEA-SEC, which states that the employment of the seafarer shall cease when the seafarer completes his period of contractual service aboard the ship, signs off from the ship and arrives at the point of hire. Under this Section, Buenaflor's employment ceased only upon his sign off and arrival at the point of hire on March 25, 2013. When he experienced the symptom of his illness, and when he was subsequently medically repatriated, he was still under the employ of Magsaysay. Buenaflor's case, thus, falls under the exception established in Canuel.
All told, this Court denies the Petition and affirms the Decision and Resolution of the CA with modification in that petitioners are ordered to pay the heirs of Buenaflor the following: 1) the Philippine currency equivalent to the amount of US$50,000; 2) an additional amount of US$14,000 to the two minor children of Buenaflor, at the exchange rate prevailing during the time of payment; and 3) the Philippine currency equivalent to the amount of US$1,000 for burial expenses at the exchange rate prevailing during the time of payment.
The award of attorney's fees at 10% of the total monetary awards is also proper following Article 2208 of the New Civil Code, "which allows its recovery in actions for recovery of wages of laborers and actions for indemnity under the employer's liability laws."27
Finally, petitioners are likewise liable for legal interest at the rate of 6% per annum from the finality of this Decision until full satisfaction.28
WHEREFORE, the Petition is DENIED. The Decision dated December 18, 2015 and the Resolution dated September 29 , 2016 of the Court of Appeals in CA G.R. SP. No. 137820 are AFFIRMED WITH MODIFICATIONS in that Magsaysay Maritime Corporation and Masterbulk Pte. Ltd. are ORDERED to PAY the heirs of Fritz D. Buenaflor, jointly and severally, at the rate of exchange at the time of payment, the Philippine currency equivalent of the following amount:
1. Fifty Thousand US dollars (US$50,000);
2. Fourteen Thousand US dollars (US$14,000) to the two minor children of Buenaflor;
3. One Thousand US dollars (US$1,000) for burial expenses; and
4. Attorney's fees at 10% of the total monetary awards.
Petitioners are likewise liable for the legal interest of 6% per annum of the foregoing monetary awards computed from the finality of this Decision until full satisfaction.
Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), Caguioa, (Working Chairperson), Lazaro-Javier, and Lopez, JJ., concur.
1 Rollo, pp. 3-47.
2 Penned by Associate Justice Ramon A. Cruz, with Associate Justices Manuel M. Barrios and Henri Jean Paul B. Inting (now a Member of the Court), concurring; id. at 48-57.
3 Id. at 61-62.
4 2011 NLRC RULES OF PROCEDURE, as Amended, Rule VII, Sec. 14.
5 RULES OF COURT, Rule 65, Sec. 1.
7 See Inocente v. St. Vincent Foundation for Children and Aging, Inc., 788 Phil. 62, 74 (2016).
8 Id. at 73.
9 See Jebsen Maritime, Inc. v. Ravena, 743 Phil. 371, 384 (2014).
10 Id. at 384-385.
11 Covita v. SSM Maritime Services, Inc., 802 Phil. 598, 607 (2016).
12 Supra note 9.
13 Id. at 384-385.
14 Yap v. Rover Maritime Services Corp., 741 Phil. 212, 231 (2016). See also Sy v. Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Inc., 703 Phil. 190, 197 (2013); Nisda v. Sea Serve Maritime Agency, 611 Phil. 315 (2009).
15 LABOR CODE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Book 4, Title II, Chapter I, Art. 173(k).
16 Racelis v. United Philippine Lines, Inc., 746 Phil.758, 767 (2014), Jebsen Maritime Inc. v. Babol, 722 Phil. 828,838 (2013), Canuel v. Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, 745 Phil. 252, 261 (2014).
17 Supra note 11 at 609. See also Canuel v. Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, supra, at 263.
18 POEA-SEC, Definition of Terms, No. 16.
19 People v. de Guzman, 299 Phil. 849, 853 (1994).
20 540 Phil. 502 (2006).
21 Racelis v. United Philippine Lines, Inc., supra note 16, at 768-769.
22 G.R. No. 199162, July 4, 2018.
24 Supra note 22.
26 Supra note 16, at 266, 275.
27 Carińo v. Maine Marine Phils., Inc., G.R. No. 231111. October 17, 2018.
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