AN “ACCIDENT” is “an unintended and unforeseen injurious occurrence; something that does not occur in the usual course of events or that could not be reasonably anticipated.”
This is how the Supreme Court described the case of a seafarer who suffered an injury due to an accident thereby entitling him to higher disability benefits under the collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). (Carlo F. Sunga vs Virjen Shipping Corp. G.R. No. 198640, April 23, 2014)
The special clauses on CBAs must prevail over the standard terms and benefits formulated by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in its Standard Employment Contract (SEC).
A contract of labor is so impressed with public interest that the more beneficial conditions must be endeavored in favor of the laborer. This is in consonance with the avowed policy of the State to give maximum aid and full protection to labor as enshrined in Article XIII of the 1987 Constitution.
In effect, this means that the seafarer will always have the minimum rights as per the POEA contract, but to the extent a CBA gives better benefits, these terms will override the POEA contract terms. In some CBAs, the higher benefits are applicable only in cases where the injury or illness is due to an accident.
The seafarer in this case, a member of the Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP), entered into a contract of employment as Fitter on board an ocean-going vessel for nine months. His employment was covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) executed between AMOSUP and his employers.
One time, while on board, the seafarer had to lift a 200-kilogram globe valve from the lower floor of the engine room to its installing position. As it was being positioned, one of the oilers lost his grip of the valve, thus, causing its whole weight to crash on the seafarer. At that point, he felt his back snap. Since then, he started to experience pain which led him to request for repatriation which was accordingly granted.
Reporting to the company-designated doctor, the seafarer underwent medical examination and was issued medical certificates: the first, recommending a Grade 8 disability based on the POEA-SEC, and the second, a disability grading of 25 percent in accordance with the CBA.
His employers offered the amount of US$16,795 as full settlement for his disability benefits based on the POEA-SEC but he rejected it and demanded that his benefits be based on the disability grading of 25 percent based on the CBA.
His employers claimed that he failed to present any proof that his disability was the result of an accident and it was simply an illness or an anatomical defect.
The arbiter and the NLRC ruled in favor of the seafarer, basing his disability benefits on the CBA. The Court of Appeals ruled otherwise and applied only the POEA-SEC, noting that the back injury which the seafarer suffered was reasonably anticipated since carrying heavy objects can cause injury and that lifting and carrying heavy objects are part of his duties as Fitter. There was no mishap, occurrence or fortuitous event when the injury was incurred.
The Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the arbiter and the NLRC and found that the seafarer’s injury was the result of the accidental slippage in the handling of the 200-kilogram valve based on circumstantial evidence. The High Court observed that the seafarer did not incur the injury while solely performing his regular duties but an “intervening event transpired,” i.e., when the oiler lost his grip of the valve, which brought upon the injury on the seafarer. Such an incident cannot be considered foreseeable nor can it be reasonably anticipated.
The duty of the seafarer here was not to routinely carry a 200-kilogram valve singlehandedly, but only to change the valve. Black’s Law Dictionary defines an “accident” is “an unintended and unforeseen injurious occurrence; something that does not occur in the usual course of events or that could not be reasonably anticipated.”
An “accident” therefore, pertains to an unforeseen event in which no fault of negligence attaches to the seafarer. As such, the seafarer’s disability benefits fall within the CBA coverage which provides that “A seafarer who suffers permanent disability as a result of an accident whilst in the employment of the Company shall be entitled to compensation according to the provisions of this Agreement.”
Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho is a graduate of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law (1998) and currently a junior partner at Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan (SVBB) law offices. He heads the seafarers’ division.
He is a speaker on nationwide paralegal seminars on seafarers’ rights and presently the executive vice president of the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW). He is also an active member of the Maritime Forum, Inc., the National Seafarers Day (NSD) committee and International Pro Bono Network.
The SVBB law works hand in hand with various seafarers’ welfare organizations such as the Apostleship of the Seas (AOS) Philippines, Luneta Seafarers Welfare Foundation (LUSWELF), International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network (ISWAN), and United Filipino Seafarers (UFS).
Atty. Gorecho is also a legal commentator on maritime issues on print, radio and TV, and co-anchor of the radio program “Bantay OCW Usapang Marino” aired over Radio Inquirer dzIQ every Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon. (For comments, email email@example.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)/PN