Compensability of seafarer’s psychosis, severe depression or schizophrenia

A SEAFARER’S psychosis, severe depression or schizophrenia may be considered compensable due to the work-related stressful environment on board the vessel.

Seafarers are susceptible to mental health issues due to harassment and bullying that can take a wide variety of forms, ranging from physical or verbal aggression, ill-treatment, cyber-bullying or sexual discrimination. There is even a high risk of suicide for seafarers with psychosis.

While the physical effect of harassment and bullying is fairly easy to identify on account of the obvious external signs, the same cannot be said of their emotional effects which are often denied or distorted.

In Cabuyoc vs Inter-Orient Navigation (G.R. No. 166649, Nov. 24, 2006), the Supreme Court ruled that the seafarer’s illness was the direct result of the demands of his shipboard employment contract and the hostile treatment and mental trauma in the hands of German ship officers. This led to his nervous breakdown and untimely repatriation to the Philippines.

The Court disregarded the company’s argument that psychosis or schizophrenia is not compensable under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract as his illness is not caused by a traumatic head injury which contemplates accidents involving physical or head contacts.

The Court noted the trauma under the POEA contract is not limited to physical in nature but the same may involve mental or emotional hurt, damage or loss sustained. The word “trauma” is defined as “a bodily injury caused by a physical force applied from without or a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from stress or injury.”

The seafarer’s disability is not only physical but mental as well because of the severe depression, mental torture, anguish, embarrassment, anger, sleepless nights and anxiety that befell him.

In Leonis Navigation vs Obrero (G.R. No. 192754, Sept. 7, 2016), the Court ruled that work-related stress may precipitate the disorder noting that the seafarer’s prolonged stint at sea eventually taxed his coping abilities which rendered him incapable of handling the stress.

The Court pointed out that schizophrenia is the most common form of psychotic disorder which involves a complex set of disturbances of thinking, perception, and social behavior and whose causes are still largely unknown, primarily associated with stressful life events.

In NFD International vs NLRC (G.R. No. 107131, March 13, 1997),  schizophrenia was declared to be work-related after the employer failed to negate the causal confluence between the epilepsy suffered by the seafarer after a mauling incident while on-board the vessel and his subsequent affliction of schizophrenia.

In Career Phils. vs Godinez, (G.R. No. 206826, Oct. 2, 2017), the neophyte young seafarer’s grave illness was directly caused by the unprofessional and inhumane treatment, as well as the physical, psychological, and mental abuse inflicted upon him by his superiors, aggravated by their failure and refusal to provide timely medical and/or professional intervention, and their neglect and indifference to his condition even as it was deteriorating before their very eyes.

In C.F. Sharp vs. Perez (G.R. No. 194885, Jan. 26, 2015) psychotic disorder was not considered an injury as a result of an accident from any cause whatsoever which would entitle the seafarer  to higher disability benefits under the CBA.

Accident is one which happens by chance or fortuitously, without intention and design, that does not occur in the usual course of events or that could not be reasonably anticipated, and not attributable to mistake, negligence, neglect or misconduct.

There is no proof that seafarer met an accident or an unintended and unforeseen injurious occurrence while on board the vessel. But his disability was deemed permanent and total, citing the company doctor’s findings that recurrence of the same psychotic disorder is possible if the seafarer is placed in the same situation.

In disability compensation, it is not the injury which is compensated, but rather it is the incapacity to work resulting in the impairment of one’s earning capacity.  Permanent total disability means disablement to earn wages in the same kind of work, or work of similar nature that he was trained for or accustomed to perform, or any kind of work which a person of his mentality and attainment could do. It does not mean absolute helplessness.

Probability and not the ultimate degree of certainty is the test of proof. The precise medical causation of the illness is not significant, as long as the illness supervened in the course of employment and is reasonably shown to have been either precipitated or aggravated by work condition.

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Atty. Dennis Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786/PN

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