Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

SECOND DIVISION

G.R. No. 184722               March 15, 2010

ALEX C. COOTAUCO, Petitioner,
vs.
MMS PHIL. MARITIME SERVICES, INC., MS. MARY C. MAQUILAN AND/OR MMS CO. LTD., Respondents.

D E C I S I O N

PEREZ, J.:

This is a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure filed by petitioner Alex C. Cootauco (petitioner) assailing the: (1) Decision of the Court of Appeals dated 17 June 2008 in CA G.R. SP No. 101324,1 which affirmed the Resolutions dated 31 May 20072 and 31 August 2007,3 issued by the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) in NLRC CA No. 050470Ė06 reversing the decision of the Labor Arbiter, granting the petitionerís claim for disability benefits. The NLRC, as a result, disallowed petitionerís claim for said benefits. Likewise assailed is the resolution of the Court of Appeals dated 25 September 2008,4 denying petitionerís Motion for Reconsideration.

The antecedent facts are:

On 9 September 2005, petitioner filed a Complaint before the Labor Arbiter docketed as NLRC NCR OFW Case No. 2005-09-02375-00, against herein respondents MMS Phil. Maritime Services, Inc. (MMS Phils.) and by Mary C. Maquilan (respondents), for medical reimbursement, permanent disability benefits, moral damages, compensatory damages, exemplary damages and attorneyís fees.5

In his Position Paper dated 26 January 2006 before the Labor Arbiter, petitioner alleged that on 14 March 2003, MMS Phils., for and in behalf of its principal, MMS Co. Ltd., hired him as Able Seaman for M/V Pax Phoenix after he passed the Pre-Employment Medical Examination (PEME) conducted by MMS Phils.ís designated physician and after obtaining the necessary Overseas Employment Certificate from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Petitioner departed from the Philippines on 4 August 2003 on board the vessel M/V Pax Phoenix as an Able Seaman. He had various duties and responsibilities at sea, port, anchor and drills. According to petitioner, he did not only perform work that was assigned to him, but also other strenuous job assignments and other heavy workloads that exposed him to cold, heat and other elements of nature and perils of the sea. Resultantly, one day, he was surprised to see a speck of blood in his urine. He informed his 2nd Mate about the incident and was merely told to observe and report the same if it should be repeated. He disembarked on 19 May 2004, and on the following day, he had fever and experienced irregular urination. He consulted Dr. Benjamin C. Parco (Dr. Parco) at St. Tomas Clinic in Tondo, Manila, who advised him to take a rest and prescribed him with medicines for his flu and Urinary Track Infection. The day following his consultation with Dr. Parco, on 21 May 2004,6 he reported at respondentsí office for mandatory reportorial requirement and at the same time he informed respondentsí company officer about his medical condition and asked for medical assistance which went unheeded. Despite the medication prescribed by Dr. Parco, there was no improvement in his condition, thus in September 2004, he went to the Seamenís Hospital for a thorough check-up. In his laboratory findings, it was shown that there were traces of blood with presence of stones in his urine. On 24 October 2004, he could no longer urinate, thus his wife brought him again to the Seamanís Hospital. The ultrasound and x-rays results showed that he had a 12mm stone in his urinary bladder and dark portion on his ureter, which must be immediately operated on.

Petitioner further alleged that on 11 November 2004, he was admitted at the Seamenís Hospital by Dr. Pahutan,7 his attending physician. He underwent a pre-operative cardiac and pulmonary evaluation, and the final diagnosis was "Urinary Bladder Stone." On 12 November 2004, he was operated on his left ureter by means of a urethrogram. On 1 December 2004, he again underwent surgery for the exploration of his left distal ureter. On 25 January 2005, he was given a medical certificate at the Seamenís Hospital with the diagnosis impression of Periureteritis (left) Distal Ureter and tuberculosis. Petitioner consulted an independent doctor in the person of Dr. Rodrigo F. Guanlao (Dr. Guanlao), an Internist-Cardiologist of the Philippine Heart Center. Dr. Guanlao diagnosed him as afflicted with the following: Hypertension stage 2, TB of the left Uretus (sic), Cystolithiasis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome of both hands with impediment disability Grade 1, permanent unfit for sea duty.8

Petitioner averred that he is entitled to medical reimbursement and sickness allowance as his sickness was incurred during the validity of his contract of employment and while performing his duty as Able Seaman of the vessel M/V Pax Phoenix; he is entitled to permanent Disability Benefits under his existing contract because his condition could have been brought about by the poor working conditions on board the vessel, and by exposure to different chemicals and other harmful substances in the vessel. He also claims that he is entitled to receive the total amount of US $60,000.00 for permanent disability benefits.9

Specifically, petitioner prayed that the respondents be ordered to reimburse his medical expenses and to pay him permanent disability benefits in the amount of US $60,000.00; moral, compensatory and exemplary damages in the amount of P500,000.00 for each of the damages claimed, as well as attorneyís fees equivalent to ten percent (10%) of the total monetary claims.10

Expectedly, respondents negated petitionerís claim. They point out that sometime in early 2003, petitioner applied for a position in M/V Pax Phoenix. On 13 March 2003, petitioner formalized his employment with respondents by accomplishing the POEA Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) which was to be effective upon petitionerís passing the requisite PEME. On 4 July 2003, petitioner underwent a PEME and he was required to disclose all existing or prior medical conditions. The disclosure requirement specifically focused on 29 medical conditions including stomach pain or ulcer, other abdominal trouble and high blood pressure, among others. Petitioner confirmed that he had never been afflicted with any illness, and the standard tests conducted on him yielded no significant findings, thus he had been declared fit to work. He was assigned to serve on board the vessel M/V Pax Phoenix as able seaman for a period of nine (9) months. On 5 August 2003, petitioner joined the crew of M/V Pax Phoenix and his employment on board the vessel was without any incident. After the expiration of the term of petitionerís contract, he signed off from the vessel on 15 May 2004 and was repatriated on 19 May 2004. Upon his arrival in the Philippines, petitioner did not make any report of any ailment or injury allegedly suffered on board M/V Pax Phoenix. On 9 September 2005 or almost fifteen (15) months after petitionerís repatriation, he filed the Complaint before the Labor Arbiter.11

Respondents argued that there is no basis for petitionerís claims under the POEA-SEC, as he did not suffer any work-related illness or injury during the term of his employment. His repatriation was due to the expiration of his contract and not due to any medical reasons and, at no time did he report any illness allegedly suffered during his employment on board M/V Pax Phoenix and even after repatriation. Section 20(B), paragraph 3 of the 2000 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions governing the employment of Filipino Seafarers provides that the seafarer must submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three working days upon his return, and failure to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement shall result in his forfeiture of the right to claim the compensation and benefits for injury or illness. Petitioner is not entitled to his claim for damages and attorneyís fees for the same is without basis. Finally, respondents prayed that the Complaint be dismissed for lack of merit.12

The Labor Arbiter found ample justification to grant the claim for disability benefits of the petitioner and held:

The proximity from the time complainant was repatriated on May 19, 2004 and the illness/urinary bladder stone which started its symptoms on May 20, 2004 or one day after complainantís repatriation until all his illnesses were uncovered and he was declared unfit to work definitely shows that complainant incurred his illness while on board and during the effectivity of his contract as the urinary bladder stone could not develop overnight. This is bolstered by the fact that the complainant was employed by the respondent since 1994 to 2004 or for a period of ten years.

The fallo of the Decision13 dated 31 August 2006 rendered by the Labor Arbiter reads:

WHEREFORE, Respondents MMS Phil Maritime Services, Inc. and/or Mary C. Maquilan are hereby ordered jointly and severally to pay complainant Alex C. Cootauco disability compensation benefit Grade 1 equivalent to Sixty Thousand (US$60,000) US Dollars pursuant to the POEA Standard Contract or its peso equivalent at the rate of exchange prevailing at the actual time of payment.

In addition, an attorneyís fees equivalent to ten (10%) of the total award is hereby granted.

Respondents filed an Appeal with the NLRC which was docketed as NLRC CA No. 050470-06. The NLRC rendered a Resolution14 dated 31 May 2007, granting the appeal and reversing the decision of the Labor Arbiter.

The NLRC explained:

In his case, he never consulted the company-designated physician. Granting that the respondents-appellants refused to refer him to the company-designated physician, that did not prevent him from consulting him because it was the complainant-appellee who paid for all his medical expenses. Without the certification of the company-designated physician, We cannot consider the medical certification of Dr. Guanlao as independent as alleged by the complainant-appellee. Not only was it issued fifteen (15) months after repatriation, the certification was not accurate because the complainant-appellee never consulted Dr. Guanlao before August 18, 2005 but the doctor claimed that the complainant-appellee was Ďunder his care, May 2004.í15

Ultimately, the NLRC held:

WHEREFORE, considering the foregoing, the instant appeal is hereby GRANTED. The decision appealed from is REVERSED and SET ASIDE.

Accordingly, the complaint is DISMISSED for lack of merit.16

Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration with the NLRC which was denied in a resolution dated 31 August 2007.17

He next sought recourse via a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 6518 with the Court of Appeals docketed as CA G.R. SP No. 101324.

In a Decision19 dated 17 June 2008, the Court of Appeals denied the petition and affirmed the Resolutions of the NLRC dated 31 May 2007 and 31 August 2007. In arriving at such disposition, the Court of Appeals ratiocinated:

Petitioner failed to undergo the required post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician. Again, he allegedly consulted his own physician Dr. Guanlao, who issued a medical certificate on 18 August 2005, or after fifteen (15) months following petitionerís repatriation to the Philippines following the expiration of his employment contract, with the diagnosis "Hypertension, stage 2, TB of left uretus, Cystolithiasis, Carpel Tunnel Syndrom, both hand" and the remark "GRADE 1 disability Permanent unfit for sea duty."

As aforesaid, it is not disputed that petitioner failed to submit himself to a post-employment examination by a company-designated physician, the adverse consequence of which is non-entitlement to the benefits. It bears stressing that it must be the company-designated physician who must declare that petitioner suffered a permanent disability, whether total or partial, due to injury or illness, during the term of the latterís employment. A resort to a "third doctor" could only be had if the physician appointed by the seafarer disagrees with the assessment of the company-designated physician, and when such third doctor has been agreed jointly between the employer and the seafarer. Therefore, it is of no moment that petitioner consulted Dr. Parco who prescribed medicines to him and thereafter he went to Dr. Pahutan of the Seamenís Hospital who issued a Medical Certification with the diagnosis impression of "Periureteritis (L) distal Ureter, 2 to tuberculosis" and relation to work "Oriented". Petitioner also sought the opinion of Dr. Guanlao, who issued a Certification on 18 August 2005, viz: "GRADE 1 disability permanent unfit for sea duty". The foregoing notwithstanding, petitioner utterly failed to undergo, within three working days from his return to the Philippines on 19 May 2004, any post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician.

x x x x

Furthermore, it has been held that in connection with said Section 20-B of the POEA Standard Employment Contract, the employer could be held liable to the seafarer for disability benefits, if the latter could present proof that he acquired or contracted the injury or illness, which resulted to his disability, during the term of his contract. From these recent rulings, it could be gleaned that: Section 20-B of the POEA Standard Employment Contract refers not only to the seafarerís right to claim medical treatment and sickness allowance but also to his right to claim disability benefits; and the injury or illness, which resulted to disability, was acquired during the term of the employment contract. In the instant case, it has been established by substantial evidence that petitioner was signed off from the vessel on 15 May 2004 following the expiration of his employment contract and was repatriated to the Philippines on 19 May 2004; during his employment on board M/V Pax Phoenix, there was no incident; and upon his arrival in the Philippines, he made no report to private respondents of any ailment or injury allegedly suffered on board said vessel.

The dispositive portion of the assailed decision20 of the Court of Appeals reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Petition is DENIED for lack of merit. No costs.

The motion for reconsideration filed by petitioner was likewise denied by the Court of Appeals in a Resolution dated 25 September 2008.21 Hence, this petition is based on the following grounds:

I. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS SERIOUSLY ERREED IN DISMISSING THE PETITION ON THE GROUND THAT PETITIONER DID NOT COMPLY WITH THE MANDATORY REPORTING REQUIREMENT, CONTRARY TO FACTS, EVIDENCE AND PREVAILING JURISPRUDENCE.

II. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS BLATANTLY MISAPPLIED SEC. 20 (B) OF THE POEA SEC. WHEN IT HELD THAT IT IS THE COMPANY-DESIGNATED PHYSICIAN WHO MUST PROCLAIM THAT THE SEAMAN SUFFERED FROM PERMANENT DISABILITY, CONTRARY TO PREVAILING JURISPRUDENCE.

III. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS BLATANTLY MISAAPLIED SEC. 20 (B) OF THE POEA SEC. WHEN IT DENIED THE PETITION ON THE GROUND THAT PETITIONER WAS REPATRIATED DUE TO A FINISHED CONTRACT.

IV. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED WHEN IT REQUIRED PETITIONER TO PRESENT CONCRETE PROOF THAT HE ACQUIRED OR CONTRACTED THE INJURY OR ILLNESS, CONTRARY TO PREVAILING JURISPRUDENCE.

V. PETITIONER IS ENTITLED TO PERMANENT DISABILITY BENEFITS.

VI. PETITIONER IS ENTITLED TO ATTORNEYíS FEES.22

In sum, the issue boils down to whether petitioner failed to comply with the requirement pertaining to the rule on mandatory reporting thus rendering his illness non-compensable.

We resolve to deny the petition for lack of merit.

The present petition is premised on the argument that the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the resolution of the NLRC dated 31 May 2007, which reversed and set aside the decision of the Labor Arbiter granting disability benefits to the petitioner.

Petitioner is fundamentally assailing the findings of both the Court of Appeals and the NLRC, that the evidence on record does not support his claim for disability benefits. This clearly involves a factual inquiry, the determination of which is not the statutory function of this Court. As a rule, only questions of law may be raised in and resolved by this Court on petitions brought under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. The reason being that the Court is not a trier of facts; it is not duty-bound to re-examine and calibrate the evidence on record. Moreover, findings of fact of quasi-judicial bodies like the NLRC, as affirmed by the Court of Appeals, are generally conclusive on this Court.23

In exceptional cases, however, we may be urged to probe and resolve factual issues when there is insufficient or insubstantial evidence to support the findings of the tribunal or court below, or when too much is concluded, inferred or deduced from the bare or incomplete facts submitted by the parties or, where the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC came up with conflicting positions. The case at bar constitutes one of these exceptional cases.24

As with all other kinds of workers, the terms and conditions of a seafarer's employment are governed by the provisions of the contract he signs at the time he is hired. But unlike that of others, deemed written in the seafarer's contract is a set of standard provisions set and implemented by the POEA called the 2000 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Vessels, which is considered to be the minimum requirement acceptable to the government for the employment of Filipino seafarers on board foreign ocean-going vessels.25

The issue of whether petitioner can legally demand and claim disability benefits from respondents for an illness suffered is best addressed by the provisions of his POEA-SEC which incorporated the 2000 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Vessels.1avvphi1

Verily, when petitioner was hired on 14 March 2003, it was the 2000 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Vessels that applied, and was deemed written in or appended to his POEA-SEC. This section specifically provides for the liabilities of the employer for an injury or illness suffered by a seaman during the term of his contract. Primarily, for an injury or illness to be duly compensated under the POEA-SEC, there must be a showing that such injury or illness occurred or was suffered during the effectivity of the employment contract. The same is true with respect to any disability caused by either injury or illness.26

Section 20(B), paragraph (3) thereof states:

x x x x.

3. upon sign off from the vessel for medical treatment, the seafarer is entitled to sickness allowance equivalent to his basic wage until he is declared fit to work or the degree of permanent disability has been assessed by the company-designated physician but in no case shall this period exceed one-hundred twenty (120) days.

For this purpose, the seafarer shall submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three working days upon his return except when he is physically incapacitated to do so, in which case a written notice to the agency within the same period is deemed as compliance. Failure of the seafarer to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement shall result in his forfeiture of the right to claim the above benefits.

As these provisions operate, the seafarer, upon sign-off from his vessel, must report to the company-designated physician within three working days from arrival for diagnosis and treatment.27

Applying the above provision of Section 20(B), paragraph (3), petitioner is required to undergo post-employment medical examination by a company-designated physician within three working days from arrival, except when he is physically incapacitated to do so, in which case, a written notice to the agency within the same period would suffice.

In Maunlad Transport, Inc. v. Manigo, Jr.,28 this Court explicitly declared that it is mandatory for a claimant to be examined by a company-designated physician within three days from his repatriation. The unexplained omission of this requirement will bar the filing of a claim for disability benefits.

The NLRC and the Court of Appeals determined that petitioner did not observe the established procedure as there is no proof at all that he reported to the office of the respondents.29 We see no reason to depart from their findings. While petitioner remains firm that he reported to the office of the respondents for mandatory reporting, the records are bereft of any proof to fortify his claim. The onus probandi falls on petitioner to establish or substantiate such claim by the requisite quantum of evidence. There is absolutely no evidence on record to prove petitionerís claim that he reported to respondentsí office for mandatory reportorial requirement. Petitioner therefore failed to adduce substantial evidence as basis for the grant of relief.

The general principle is that one who makes an allegation has the burden of proving it. A party alleging a critical fact must support his allegation with substantial evidence. Any decision based on unsubstantiated allegation cannot stand as it will offend due process.30

In labor cases as in other administrative proceedings, substantial evidence or such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion is required.31

The oft repeated rule is that whoever claims entitlement to the benefits provided by law should establish his or her right thereto by substantial evidence.32

In Wallem Maritime Services v. National Labor Relations Commission,33 this Court made an exception regarding the compulsory reporting requirement and emphasized that this rule is not absolute. The Court explained that the seaman therein was physically incapacitated from complying with the requirement observing that the seaman was already terminally ill and for a man in that condition and in need of urgent medical attention, one could not reasonably expect that he would immediately resort to and avail of the required medical attention assuming that he was still capable of submitting himself to such examination at that time.

Regretfully, we cannot apply Wallem to petitionerís case as the circumstances in that case are not the same herein. Petitioner is not similarly situated in that there is no showing that he is likewise physically incapacitated to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement as to justify exemption of the application of the rule. In this case, petitioner was incontrovertibly repatriated due to the completion of his contract and not due to any ailment. There is no showing that he contracted illness during the effectivity of his contract though he maintained that while on board the vessel he noticed a speck of blood in his urine and informed a 2nd mate about it. This remains to be a bare claim unsupported by proof. There is no evidence of any entry in the Masterís report or the vesselís log of any medical complaints involving petitioner.34 More, he could not, at the very least, point out the date of the occurrence of the incident or provide the identity of the crew member to whom he allegedly related the matter.

In Rivera v. Wallem Maritime Services, Inc.,35 this Court again highlighted the importance of the requirement regarding mandatory reporting when it denied therein petitionerís claim for disability benefits for failure to undergo mandatory post-employment medical examination. This Court held:

In this case, it is not disputed that Rodolfo failed to submit himself to the mandatory post-employment medical examination. The respondent manning agency found out about his confinement only through the petitioner, who asked for assistance in claiming her husbandís retirement benefits. Indeed, while compliance with the reporting requirement under the Standard Employment Contract can be dispensed with, there must likewise be basis for the award of death compensation. Without a post-medical examination or its equivalent to show that the disease for which the seaman died was contracted during his employment or that his working conditions increased the risk of contracting the ailment, the respondents cannot be made liable for death compensation.36

For the same reason, we are hard pressed to grant petitionerís claim for disability benefits and other monetary awards prayed for by him. The Court is surely saddened by the plight of the petitioner, but we are constrained to deny his claim for compensation benefits absent proof of compliance with the requirements set forth in Section 20(B), paragraph (3) of the 2000 Amended Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Vessels. Awards of compensation cannot rest on speculations and presumptions as the claimant must prove a positive proposition.37

Admittedly, strict rules of evidence are not applicable in claims for compensation and disability benefits, but the Court cannot altogether disregard the mandatory provisions of the law.38

In light of the foregoing conclusion, there is no necessity of discussing the other presented issues.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the instant Petition is DENIED for lack of merit and the decision of the Court of Appeals dated 17 June 2008 and the resolution of the same court dated 25 September 2008 in CA G.R. SP No. 101324 are AFFIRMED. No costs.

SO ORDERED.

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Associate Justice
Chairperson

ARTURO D. BRION
Associate Justice
MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO
Associate Justice

ROBERTO A. ABAD
Associate Justice

A T T E S T A T I O N

I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision were reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courtís Division.

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Associate Justice
Chairperson, Second Division

C E R T I F I C A T I O N

Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution, and the Division Chairpersonís Attestation, it is hereby certified that the conclusions in the above Decision were reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courtís Division.

REYNATO S. PUNO
Chief Justice


Footnotes

1 Penned by Associate Justice Celia C. Librea-Leagogo with Associate Justices Vicente S. E. Veloso and Agustin S. Dizon concurring. Rollo, pp. 38-59.

2 Id. at 82.

3 Id. at 90.

4 Id. at 61.

5 Id. at 76.

6 CA rollo, p. 6.

7 Complete name of Dr. Pahutan is not reflected in the Records. CA rollo, pp. 51-52.

8 Id. at 40.

9 Id.

10 Id. at 41.

11 Id.

12 Id.

13 Penned by Labor Arbiter Lilia S. Savari. Rollo, p. 80.

14 Id. at 87.

15 Id.

16 Id.

17 Id. at 90.

18 Certiorari, Prohibition and Mandamus.

19 Rollo, pp. 38-59.

20 Id. at 57.

21 Id. at 61.

22 Id. at 140-141.

23 Acevedo v. Advanstar Company, Inc., G.R. No. 157656, 11 November 2005, 474 SCRA 656, 664.

24 Nisda v. Sea Serve Maritime Agency, G.R. No. 179177, 23 July 2009, citing Pascua v. National Labor Relations Commission, 351 Phil. 48, 61 (1998).

25 Nisda v. Sea Serve Maritime Agency, id.

26 Id.

27 Vergara v. Hammonia Maritime Services, Inc., G.R. No. 172933, 6 October 2008, 567 SCRA 610, 628.

28 G.R. No.161416, 13 June 2008, 554 SCRA 446, 459. The Court actually applied Section 20ĖB of the 1996 POEA-SEC, which is reproduced in verbatim in 2000 POEA-SEC.

29 Rollo, p. 54.

30 UST Faculty Union v. UST, G.R. No. 180892, 7 April 2009.

31 Id.

32 Signey v. Social Security System, G.R. No. 173582, 28 January 2008, 542 SCRA 629, 639.

33 376 Phil. 738, 749 (1999).

34 Rollo, p. 55.

35 G.R. No. 160315, 11 November 2005, 474 SCRA 714.

36 Id. at 723.

37 Orate v. Court of Appeals, 447 Phil. 654, 660 (2003).

38 Rivera v. Wallem Maritime Services, Inc., supra note 35 at 724.


The Lawphil Project - Arellano Law Foundation