What is an accident? Supreme Court rules out injury sustained while in the performance of duty

Supreme Court defines ‘accident’

In a recent case the Supreme Court defined the term ‘accident’ – as found in collective bargaining agreements – and ruled that injury sustained while in the performance of duty could not be considered to be the result of an accident.(1)

Facts

The respondent seafarer was employed as a third officer. While aboard the vessel, he felt a sudden snap in his back while carrying a heavy basketful of hydrant caps. He immediately informed the ship captain of his condition, but the pain became severe and the seafarer had difficulty in walking. He was taken to a foreign clinic and diagnosed as suffering from lumbago and a sprain. The doctor advised him to avoid lifting and to seek further treatment. The respondent was then repatriated to undergo further medical treatment. He underwent a laminectomy with discectomy at St Luke’s Medical Centre in Quezon City and then undertook a physical rehabilitation programme. When his condition did not improve, the seafarer consulted a private physician, who declared that he had sustained a Grade 11 partial permanent disability under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract. He was declared unfit to work at sea in any capacity as a seafarer. The seafarer claimed disability benefit. The petitioners (ie, the vessel interests) offered to pay the seafarer benefit in the amount of $16,795, corresponding to Grade 8 disability under the POEA contract. However, the seafarer refused to accept the offer on the grounds that his injury was caused by an accident and was therefore compensable in the amount of $90,000 under the collective bargaining agreement.

The labour arbiter awarded the seafarer $90,000. On appeal, the National Labour Relations Commission awarded $16,795. This was then reversed by the Court of Appeals, which awarded $90,000. The case then reached the Supreme Court, which had to rule on the definition of the term ‘accident’ and on the amount of compensation that was due to the injured man.

Accident

First, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the seafarer’s disability was the result of an accident. The court considered several definitions of the term ‘accident’. Black’s Law Dictionary(2) defines the term as:

“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 unforeseen and injurious occurrence not attributable to mistake, negligence, neglect or misconduct”.

The Philippine Law Dictionary(3) defines the term as “that which happens by chance or fortuitously, without intention and design, and which is unexpected, unusual and unforeseen”.

The court stated that the term ‘accident’:

“in its commonly accepted meaning, or in its ordinary sense, has been defined as ‘a fortuitous circumstance, event, or happening, an event happening without any human agency, or if happening wholly or partly through human agency, an event which under the circumstances is unusual and unexpected by the person to whom it happens… the word may be employed as denoting a calamity, casualty, catastrophe, disaster, an undesirable or unfortunate happening; any unexpected personal injury resulting from any unlooked for mishap or occurrence; any unpleasant or unfortunate occurrence, that causes injury, loss, suffering or death; some untoward occurrence aside from the usual course of events’.”

The court held that the snapping of the seaman’s back was not an accident, but rather was an injury sustained as a result of carrying a heavy basket of fire hydrant caps, and that the injury resulted in his disability. The court held that the injury could not be said to be the result of an accident – that is, “an unlooked for mishap, occurrence, or fortuitous event” – because it resulted from the performance of a duty. The court further held that although the seafarer may not have expected the injury, it is common knowledge that carrying heavy objects can cause back injury. As such, the court held that the injury could not be viewed as unusual under the circumstances, and therefore could not be considered an ‘accident’.

Compensation

The court held that although the seafarer’s disability was not caused by an accident, his disability was nonetheless compensable under Article 13 of the agreement, which states:

“A seafarer/officer who is disabled as a result of any injury, and who is assessed as less than 50% permanently disabled, but permanently unfit for further service at sea in any capacity, shall also be entitled to a 100% compensation.”

The court found merit in the reasons stated by the seafarer’s private physician for declaring the seafarer unfit to work in any capacity as a seaman. As gleaned from the medical report, although the seafarer had post-surgery treatment, he continued to suffer back pain and was unable to tolerate prolonged standing and walking. As such, the seafarer could not withstand the demands of his previous work. No surgery could reverse the pathological process or restore the seafarer’s back to its previous state. Furthermore, the court stated that by resuming his usual work – which includes the loading, twisting, bending and extension of the back – the seafarer would risk causing him even more discomfort. Therefore, the court held, the seafarer was entitled to disability benefit of $90,000 under the agreement.

The court gave credence to the seafarer’s private physician – a specialist in occupational medicine and orthopedics – as opposed to that of the company-designated physician. The court quoted the seafarer’s physician’s report:

“Surgery can never stop the pathological process nor restore the back to its previous state. Similar poor results have been found with repeated attempts at surgical intervention for the relief of chronic low back pain. If long term relief is desired, continued mechanical stress of postural or occupational type must be avoided. Resuming his usual work, which includes increased loading, twisting, or bending and extension of the back, will further expose  lllescas to dangers of enhancing his discomfort even more… it is for this reason that I find him unfit to work back at sea in any capacity as a seaman.”

For further information on this topic please contact Ruben T Del Rosario at Del Rosario & Del Rosario law Offices by telephone (+63 2 810 1791), fax (+63 2 817 1740) or email (ruben.delrosario@delrosariolaw.com).

Endnotes

(1) NFD International Manning Agents, Inc/Barber Ship Management, Ltd v Esmeraldo Illescas; GR 183054; Second Division; September 29 2010, Supreme Court Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, Ponente.

(2) Eighth edition.

(3) Third edition.

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