Effect when a company fails to provide a definite assessment of a seafarer’s fitness to work.

Failure of the company-designated physician to arrive at a definite assessment of the seafarer's fitness to work or permanent disability within the prescribed periods and if the seafarer's medical condition remains unresolved, the law steps in to consider the latter's disability as total and permanent, as ruled by the Supreme Court in the of Michael Angelo T. Lemoncito v. BSM Crew Service Centre Philippines, Inc./Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement (Isle of Man Ltd.) | G.R. No. 247409. February 3, 2020

FACTS: Respondent BSM Crew Service (BSM) hired petitioner Lemoncito as a motor man. After being declared fit to work, petitioner boarded on July 22, 2015. While on board, petitioner complained of fever and cough productive of whitish phlegm and throat discomfort. On February 22, 2016, he was medically repatriated. He was referred to company-designated doctors and was diagnosed with lower respiratory tract infection and hypertension. The doctors opined that petitioner's hypertension was not work-related. On July 1, 2016, the doctors issued their final report which states that petitioner had been previously cleared of his lower respiratory tract infection and that his hypertension was responding to medication.

Disagreeing with the report, petitioner consulted another physician which declared him "unfit to work as a seaman". He then lodged a complaint for total permanent disability benefits, among others. Respondents countered that petitioner failed to observe the third-doctor-referral rule under the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency-Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) when he independently consulted his physician.

The Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators found petitioner to be totally and permanently disabled and that non-compliance with the third-doctor-referral rule should not be taken against him because the company-designated doctors failed to make a fitness assessment within the required 120-day period.

ISSUE: Can petitioner be declared as totally and permanently disabled by reason of his hypertension?

RULING: Yes. In the Medical Report of the company-designated doctors, there was no categorical statement that petitioner is fit or unfit to resume his work as a seaman. It simply stated: a) petitioner was previously cleared of his lower respiratory tract infection; b) petitioner's blood pressure is adequately controlled with medications; and c) petitioner was cleared cardiac wise as of July 1, 2016. In other words, this assessment is incomplete, nay, inconclusive.

Upon finding that the seafarer suffers a work-related injury or illness, the employer is obligated to refer the former to a company-designated physician, who has the responsibility to arrive at a definite assessment of the farmer's fitness or degree of disability within a period of 120 days from repatriation. This period may be extended up to a maximum of 240 days, if the seafarer requires further medical treatment, subject to the right of the employer to declare within this extended period that a permanent partial or total disability already exists. Failure of the company-designated physician to arrive at a definite assessment of the seafarer's fitness to work or permanent disability within the prescribed periods and if the seafarer's medical condition remains unresolved, the law steps in to consider the latter's disability as total and permanent.

By operation of law, therefore, petitioner is already totally and permanently disabled.

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