The incomplete and dubious assessment of the occupational physician in disability files

A seafarer is under no obligation to obtain a second opinion from his personal physician if the company physician has issued an incomplete and questionable assessment.

The Supreme Court reiterated in Joemar Bacabac v. NYK-Fil Ship Management (GR No. 228550 July 28, 2021) the need for the occupational physician’s assessment to be complete and final for the purpose of determining the degree of disability of the sailor advantages.

The sailor in this case suffered from abdominal pain and symptoms while aboard the vessel. He was later medically repatriated and diagnosed with Severe acute cholangitis two days after landing.

The respondents denied liability for disability benefits as they argued that the seafarer’s illness is not compensable because the company doctor said it was not work-related.

The Court then ruled that the seafarer’s medical condition is disputable as work-related although not listed as an occupational disease because the disease manifested or was discovered during the term of his contract.

The onus is on the respondents to prove the contrary.

What the POEA contract requires is that the occupational physician justifies the expertise by the medical findings he collected during the treatment of the sailor.

The occupational physician’s assessment must be complete and final for the purpose of determining the seafarer’s degree of disability.

The assessment must truly reflect the extent of the seafarer’s illness or injury and his or her ability to return to work as such. A simple assertion that the illness is not work-related or that the seafarer is fit to perform duties at sea is insufficient.

The court will not hesitate to invalidate an incomplete and dubious medical report from the occupational physician and to disregard the opinion given imprudently.

The Court declared in this case that the medical report of the occupational physician is insufficient to overturn the presumption. The occupational physician’s report only indicated the diagnosis for Severe acute cholangitis or inflammation or swelling of the bile ducts.

Cholangitis is a type of liver disease. When the bile ducts become inflamed, bile can back up into the liver, which can lead to liver damage.

Acute cholangitis occurs suddenly and can be caused by bacterial infection, gallstones, blockages, and tumor.

There are also environmental causes like infections, smoking, and exposure to chemicals.

The sailor’s Severe acute cholangitis suggests that he has not responded well to initial medical treatment and has organ dysfunction in at least one of the following organs/systems: cardiovascular system, nervous system, respiratory system, renal system, and hepatic system.

The Court, however, is puzzled as to the cause, severity and extent of the sailor’s illness.

The medical report did not contain any explanation of how the company doctor had come to the conclusion that the illness was not work-related. No other documentation was submitted to support such a conclusion.

Worse, the company doctor only made this statement two days after the sailor’s medical repatriation. The Court also noted the seafarer’s continued hospitalization for an entire month after this statement.

The medical assessment of the sailor by the occupational physician not having respected the parameters provided for by law and case law, the sailor is deemed to be totally and definitively disabled from the date of expiry of the period of 120 days from his repatriation.

It could no longer be a question of whether his illness is work-related or not. Thus, the sailor duly filed his complaint for payment of permanent and total disability benefits against the respondents after the expiry of the 120-day period from his repatriation.

The Court also pointed out that the seafarer is under no obligation to seek the advice of his own doctor. Compliance by the seafarer with such a procedure presupposes that the company doctor has established a valid assessment of his aptitude or inaptitude for work before the expiry of the 120 or 240 day periods.

In the absence of a valid certificate from the occupational physician, the sailor has nothing to contest and the courts intervene to definitively consider his disability as total and permanent.

(Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho leads the Seafarers Division of Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan Law Firms. For comments, email [email protected]or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)


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About Antoine L. Cassell

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