HONEST mistakes on a pre-existing illness during the pre-employment medical examination (PEME) will not deprive seafarers of their right over disability or death benefits.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract bars the compensability of disability arising from a pre-existing illness when attended by fraudulent misrepresentation.
The POEA contract states that “a seafarer who knowingly conceals and does not disclose past medical condition, disability and history in the pre-employment medical examination constitutes fraudulent misrepresentation and shall disqualify him from any compensation and benefits.”
In Manansala vs Marlow Navigation Phils., Inc. (G.R. No. 208314, August 23, 2017), the Supreme Court noted that the contract’s terminology is carefully calibrated; it does not merely speak of incorrectness, falsity, of incompleteness or inexactness, or failure to disclose the truth. Rather, to negate compensability, it requires fraudulent misrepresentation, that the seafarer deliberately concealed it for a malicious purpose.
To amount to fraudulent misrepresentation, falsity must be coupled with intent to deceive and to profit from that deception.
Between the seafarer and an examining physician, the Supreme Court said that the latter is in a better position to assess fitness for the rigors of sea duty. Apart from one’s literal body, the seafarer’s only other contribution to a medical examination is a set of responses to questions.
His personal health assessment is based on his amateur opinion, or otherwise unrefined understanding of nuanced medical conditions.
In contrast, PEME procedures are conducted and supervised by professionals with scientific and technical capabilities.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court said, it is more appropriate that the examining physician, a trained professional, and not the seafarer who is a layperson, be faulted for discounting the presence of diseases even after subjecting the seafarer to a series of procedures, verifiable empirical data, which are then evaluated by a physician.
Consequently, reasonable leeway may be extended for inability to make complete and fastidiously accurate accounts when this inability arises from venial human limitation and frailty. This is a normal tendency for laypersons – such as seafarers – rendering accounts of their own medical conditions.
The greater possibility is that a seafarer’s self-assessment of personal medical conditions will fail to capture nuances that can make the difference between fitness and unfitness for work.
As laypersons, they do not have the requisite medical knowledge to properly characterize their illnesses.
Even if they are aware of their own medical conditions, they may, in their nonprofessional opinion but still in good faith, be convinced that their conditions are not so severe and that they can manage to perform work aboard a vessel.
Seafarers cannot be held to account under an inordinate standard. The POEA contract takes exception to fraudulent misrepresentation, not to honest mistakes.
The Supreme Court pointed out that the PEME is not exploratory and does not allow the employer to discover any and all pre-existing medical conditions with which the seafarer is suffering and for which he maybe presently taking medication.
The PEME is nothing more than a summary examination of the seafarer’s physiological condition (DOHLE-PHILMAN vs Cabanban, 702 SCRA 467). It merely determines whether one is “fit to work” at sea or “fit for sea service” and it does not state the real state of health of an applicant.
The “fit to work” declaration in the PEME cannot be a conclusive proof to show that a seafarer was free from any ailment prior to his deployment. (Magsaysay v. NLRC, 616 SCRA 362, 378-379).
(Atty. Dennis Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786./PN)