G.R. No. 178564, January 15, 2014
INC. SHIPMANAGEMENT, INC., CAPTAIN SIGFREDO E. MONTERROYO AND/OR INTERORIENT NAVIGATION LIMITED, Petitioners, v. ALEXANDER L. MORADAS, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
Assailed in this petition for review on Certiorari1 are the Decision2 dated October 31, 2006 and Resolution3 dated June 25, 2007 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 84769 which granted respondent Alexander L. Moradas's (respondent) claim to permanent total disability benefits in the amount of US 60,000.00, or its peso equivalent, and attorney's fees.
On July 17, 2000, respondent was employed as wiper for the vessel MV Commander (vessel) by petitioner INC Shipmanagement, Inc. for its principal, petitioner Interorient Navigation, Ltd. (petitioners), for a period of 10 months, with a basic monthly salary of US 360.00, plus benefits.4
On October 13, 2000, respondent claimed that while he was disposing of the garbage in the incinerator room of the vessel, certain chemicals splashed all over his body because of an explosion.5 He was sent to the Burns Unit of the Prince of Wales Hospital on the same day wherein he was found to have suffered deep burns. Eventually, upon his own request, respondent was sent home.6
On October 21, 2000, he was admitted to the St. Luke’s Medical Center.7 Subsequently, he was diagnosed to have sustained "thermal burns, upper and lower extremities and abdomen, 2 -3 , 11%"8 for which he underwent debridement. He was referred to a physical therapist for his subsequent debridement through hydrotherapy. On November 10, 2000, the attending physician, Dr. Natalio G. Alegre II, reported that the respondent’s thermal burns were healing well and that they were estimated to fully heal within a period of 3 to 4 months.9
Claiming that the burns rendered him permanently incapable of working again as a seaman, respondent demanded10 for the payment of his full disability benefits under Section 20 (B) in relation to Sections 30 and 30-A of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), in the amount of US$60,000.00, which petitioners refused to heed.11 Thus, respondent filed a complaint against petitioners for the same, seeking as well moral and exemplary damages, including attorney’s fees.
In their position paper,12 petitioners denied respondent’s claims, contending that his injury was self-inflicted and, hence, not compensable under Section 20 (D) of the POEA-SEC. They denied that the vessel’s incinerator exploded and claimed that respondent burned himself by pouring paint thinner on his overalls and thereafter set himself on fire. They averred that he was led to commit such act after he was caught last October 10, 200013 stealing the vessel’s supplies during a routine security inspection conducted by Captain Bodo Wirth (Captain Wirth) where respondent was informed that he was to be dismissed.14 They also stated that just before they discovered respondent to be burning, the vessel’s engine room became flooded.15 They ascribed the flooding incident to respondent, having been seen by fellow crew members standing at the railing around the portside seachest and looking at it16 and that when the bilge level alarm sounded, he was seen disappearing up to the boiler deck leaving small patches of water on the floor, on the steps, and on the deck where he had been.17 In support thereof, petitioners submitted the report of the ship captain on the flooding as extracted from the vessel’s deck logbook18 as well as the affidavits and statements executed by the vessel’s officers and crew members relative to the flooding and burning incidents. Based on the said affidavits and statements, the vessel’s bosun, Antonio Gile (Gile), attested that he saw respondent go to the paint room and there soak his hands in a can full of thinner. Respondent then proceeded to the incinerator door where he was set ablaze. Gile further pointed out that there was no fire in the incinerator at that time.19 Also, Chief Officer Antonino S. Bejada (Bejada) testified that prior to the burning incident, he had ordered an ordinary seaman who had been burning deck waste in the incinerator to extinguish the fire with water and close up the incinerator door because of bad weather conditions. Bejada then checked the incinerator after the burning incident and found unburnt cardboard cartons inside with no sign of explosion and that the steel plates surrounding it were cool to the touch. He also noticed that the respondent’s overalls had patches of green paint on the arms and body and smelled strongly of thinner. An open paint tin can was found near the place of the incident and a cigarette lighter lying beside respondent20 which oiler Edgardo Israel confirmed was borrowed from him even though he knew that the former did not smoke.21 Finally, petitioners denied respondent’s claim for damages and attorney’s fees for lack of factual and legal bases.22
In his Reply to the position paper,23 respondent denied burning himself, contending that such act was contrary to human nature and logic and that there was no showing that he was mentally unfit.24 Further, he posited that the affidavits and statements submitted by the vessel’s officers and crew members have no probative value for being mere hearsay and self-serving.25 He equally insisted on his claim for moral and exemplary damages and attorney’s fees.26
Meanwhile, or on February 29, 2001, petitioner Captain Sigfredo E. Monterroyo filed a complaint27 for disciplinary action against respondent before the POEA for his various infractions committed on board the vessel, namely: (a) act of dishonesty for stealing the vessel’s supplies on October 10, 2000; (b) act of sabotage committed on October 13, 2000; and (c) grave misconduct for inflicting the injury to himself.28
The LA Ruling
In a Decision29 dated April 15, 2003, the Labor Arbiter (LA) ruled in favor of petitioners, dismissing respondent’s complaint for lack of merit. The LA held that respondent’s injury was self-inflicted and that no incinerator explosion occurred that would have caused the latter’s injuries.30 ] The LA gave more credence to the corroborating testimonies of the petitioners’ witnesses that respondent’s botched attempts to sabotage the vessel and steal its supplies may have motivated him to inflict injuries to himself.31 Lastly, the LA denied respondent’s claim for moral and exemplary damages as well as attorney’s fees since he failed to prove any evident bad faith or malice on petitioners’ part.32
The NLRC Ruling
On appeal, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), in a Decision33 dated January 30, 2004, sustained the findings of the LA and held, inter alia, that while some of the statements and affidavits of the vessel’s officers and crew members were not notarized, the corroborating testimonial evidence must be taken as a whole. In this accord, it gave due credence to the questioned evidence absent any showing that the petitioners were motivated by ill will.34 Also, it pointed out that respondent’s mental or physical fitness was not at issue since he was motivated to inflict injury to himself for reasons related to his impending discharge and not because of his disposition.35
Respondent filed a motion for reconsideration but the same was denied in a Resolution36 dated March 31, 2004. Dissatisfied, he filed a petition for certiorari before the CA.
The CA Ruling
On October 31, 2006, the CA rendered the assailed Decision,37 holding that grave abuse of discretion tainted the NLRC ruling.
It found no logical and causal connection between the act of pilferage as well as the act of causing the flooding in the engine room and the conclusion that respondent’s injury was self-inflicted. It added that it was contrary to human nature and experience for respondent to burn himself.38 Further, the CA noted that the location of the burns on the different parts of respondent’s body was more consistent with respondent’s assertion that certain chemicals splashed all over his body rather than petitioners’ theory of self-inflicted injury.39 Moreover, it pointed out that no evidence was presented to show that respondent had no business near the engine room.40 In the same vein, it observed that the mere finding of a cigarette lighter was inadequate to justify the conclusion that he burned himself.41 Consequently, for petitioners’ failure to discharge the burden of proving that respondent’s injury was directly attributable to him as required under Section 20 (D) of the POEA-SEC, the CA found that the NLRC gravely abused its discretion and, thus, held petitioners liable to pay respondent permanent total disability benefits in the amount of US$60,000.00, or its peso equivalent.42
On the other hand, respondent’s claims for moral and exemplary damages were denied for lack of basis but the CA awarded him attorney’s fees in the amount of
Aggrieved, petitioners moved for reconsideration which was, however, denied in a Resolution44 dated June 25, 2007. Hence, this petition.
The Issue Before The Court
The essential issue in this case is whether or not the CA erred in finding that the NLRC gravely abused its discretion when it denied respondent’s claim for disability benefits.
The Court’s Ruling
The petition is meritorious.
A. Preliminary Matters: Framework of
Review and Governing Rules
At the outset, the Court deems it proper to elucidate on the framework in which the review of this case had been conducted, in conjunction with the applicable governing rules to analyze its substantive merits.
The Court’s jurisdiction in cases brought before it from the CA via Rule 45 of the Rules of Court is generally limited to reviewing errors of law. The Court is not the proper venue to consider a factual issue as it is not a trier of facts. This rule, however, is not ironclad and a departure therefrom may be warranted where the findings of fact of the CA are contrary to the findings and conclusions of the NLRC and LA, as in this case. In this regard, there is therefore a need to review the records to determine which of them should be preferred as more conformable to evidentiary facts.45
With respect to the applicable rules, it is doctrinal that the entitlement of seamen on overseas work to disability benefits"is a matter governed, not only by medical findings, but by law and by contract. The material statutory provisions are Articles 191 to 193 under Chapter VI (Disability Benefits) of the Labor Code, in relation [to] Rule X of the Rules and Regulations Implementing Book IV of the Labor Code. By contract, the POEA-SEC, as provided under Department Order No. 4, series of 2000 of the Department of Labor and Employment, and the parties’ Collective Bargaining Agreement bind the seaman and his employer to each other."46
In the foregoing light, the Court observes that respondent executed his contract of employment on July 17, 2000,47 incorporating therein the terms and conditions of the 2000 POEA-SEC which took effect on June 25, 2000. However, since the implementation of the provisions of the foregoing 2000 POEA-SEC was temporarily suspended48 by the Court on September 11, 2000, particularly Section 20, paragraphs (A), (B), and (D) thereof, and was lifted only on June 5, 2002, through POEA Memorandum Circular No. 2, series of 2002,49 the determination of respondent’s entitlement to the disability benefits should be resolved under the provisions of the 1996 POEA-SEC as it was, effectively, the governing circular at the time respondent’s employment contract was executed.
The prevailing rule under Section 20 (B) of the 1996 POEA-SEC on compensation and benefits for injury or illness was that an employer shall be liable for the injury or illness suffered by a seafarer during the term of his contract. There was no need to show that such injury was work-related except that it must be proven to have been contracted during the term of the contract. The rule, however, is not absolute and the employer may be exempt from liability if he can successfully prove that the cause of the seaman’s injury was directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act as provided under Section 20 (D) thereof, to wit:
D. No compensation shall be payable in respect of any injury, incapacity, disability or death of the seafarer resulting from his willful or criminal act, provided however, that the employer can prove that such injury, incapacity, disability or death is directly attributable to seafarer.
Hence, the onus probandi falls on the petitioners herein to establish or substantiate their claim that the respondent’s injury was caused by his willful act with the requisite quantum of evidence. In labor cases, as in other administrative proceedings, only substantial evidence or such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion is required.50 To note, considering that substantial evidence is an evidentiary threshold, the Court, on exceptional cases, may assess the factual determinations made by the NLRC in a particular case. In Career Philippines Shipmanagement, Inc. v. Serna,51 the Court expressed the following view:
Accordingly, we do not re-examine conflicting evidence, re-evaluate the credibility of witnesses, or substitute the findings of fact of the NLRC, an administrative body that has expertise in its specialized field. Nor do we substitute our "own judgment for that of the tribunal in determining where the weight of evidence lies or what evidence is credible." The factual findings of the NLRC, when affirmed by the CA, are generally conclusive on this Court.
Nevertheless, there are exceptional cases where we, in the exercise of our discretionary appellate jurisdiction may be urged to look into factual issues raised in a Rule 45 petition. For instance, when
In view of which POEA Memorandum Circular No. 11, series of 2000, issued on 12 September 2000 enforcing the Temporary restraining Order issued by the Supreme Court in a Resolution dated 11 September 2000, on the implementation of the abovementioned provision is hereby Rescinded.
x x x
the petitioner persuasively alleges that there is insufficient or insubstantial evidence on record to support the factual findings of the tribunal or court a quo , as Section 5, Rule 133 of the Rules of Court states in express terms that in cases filed before administrative or quasi-judicial bodies, a fact may be deemed established only if supported by substantial evidence.52 (Emphases supplied; citations omitted)
The evident conflict between the NLRC’s and CA’s factual findings as shown in the records of this case prompts the Court to sift through their respective factual determinations if only to determine if the NLRC committed grave abuse of discretion in reaching its disposition, keeping in mind that the latter’s assessment should only meet the threshold of substantial evidence.
In view of the above-discussed considerations and after a judicious scrutiny of the facts on record, the Court holds that the CA erred in attributing grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC in affirming the LA’s dismissal of respondent’s complaint. This is based on the Court’s observation that the NLRC had cogent legal bases to conclude that petitioners have successfully discharged the burden of proving by substantial evidence that respondent’s injury was directly attributable to himself. The reasons therefor are as follows:
First, records bear out circumstances which all lead to the reasonable conclusion that respondent was responsible for the flooding and burning incidents.
Records show that the LA and NLRC gave credence to the corroborating testimonies of the crewmen pointing to respondent as the person who deliberately caused the flooding incident. In particular, respondent was seen alone in the vicinity of the portside seachest which cover was found to have been intentionally removed and thereby caused the flooding. He was also seen disappearing up to the boiler deck just when the bilge level alarm sounded with patches of water left on the floor plates and on the stairways. Respondent neither denied nor proffered any explanation on the foregoing claims especially when all of his fellow engine room staff, except him, responded to the alarm and helped pump out the water in the engine room.53 As to the burning, respondent failed to successfully controvert Gile’s claim that he saw the former go to the paint room, soak his hands in a can full of thinner and proceed to the incinerator door where he was set ablaze. In fact, respondent’s burnt overalls conform to the aforesaid claim as it had green paint on the arms and body and smelled strongly of thinner, while the open paint tin can that was found in the vicinity contained solvent which had the same green color found on the overalls.
Second, respondent’s version that the burning was caused by an accident is hardly supported by the evidence on record.
The purported explosion in the incinerator was belied by Gile who also claimed that there was no fire in the incinerator room at the time respondent got burned. This was corroborated by Bejada who testified having ordered an ordinary seaman that was burning deck waste in the incinerator early that day to extinguish the fire with water and close up the incinerator door because of bad weather conditions. Accordingly, an inspection of the incinerator after the incident showed that there were unburnt cardboard cartons found inside with no sign of explosion and the steel plates surrounding it were cool to the touch. Further, as aptly discerned by the LA, if there was really an incinerator explosion, then respondent’s injury would have been more serious.54
Respondent debunked Gile’s claim by merely asserting in his Answer and Rejoinder before the POEA that the latter could not have been in the room at the time he got burned as he was not the first person to rescue him and concluded that he could not have soaked his hands in a can full of thinner considering the extent of damage caused to his hands.55 This argument is riddled with serious flaws: Gile could have been the second man in, and still personally know the matters he has alleged. Also, that respondent soaked his hands in thinner is not denied by the fact that the greatest damage was not caused to it since the fire could have started at some part of his body considering that his overalls also had flammable chemicals. Reason also dictates that he could have extinguished the fire on his hands sooner than the other parts of his body. In any event, the medical records of respondent, particularly the report56 issued by the Prince of Wales Hospital Burns Surgery, show that he suffered from "deep burn area" that was distributed over his left upper limb, right hand, left flank and both thighs.57 To assert that respondent’s hands should have suffered the greatest damage is plainly argumentative and records are bereft of showing as to the exact degree of burn suffered for each part.
To add, Bejada’s statement that respondent’s burnt overalls had patches of green paint on the arms and body and strongly smelled of thinner conforms with Gile’s claim that he soaked his hands in a can of thinner before approaching the incinerator (thinner may be found in a paint room). Such fact further fortifies petitioners’ assertion that his injury was self-inflicted as a prudent man would not dispose of garbage in the incinerator under such condition.
And if only to placate other doubts, the CA’s finding that "some chemicals splashed [on respondent’s] body"58 should not automatically mean that the "splashing" was caused by pure accident. It is equally reasonable to conclude that the "splashing"–as may be inferred from both the LA’s and NLRC"s findings–was a by-product of respondent’s botched sabotage attempt.
While respondent contended that the affidavits and statements of the vessel’s officers and his fellow crew members should not be given probative value as they were biased, self-serving, and mere hearsay, he nonetheless failed to present any evidence to substantiate his own theory. Besides, as correctly pointed out by the NLRC, the corroborating affidavits and statements of the vessel’s officers and crew members must be taken as a whole and cannot just be perfunctorily dismissed as self-serving absent any showing that they were lying when they made the statements therein.59
Third, petitioners’ theory that respondent’s burns were self-inflicted gains credence through the existence of motive.
At this juncture, the Court finds it important to examine the existence of motive in this case since no one actually saw what transpired in the incinerator room. To this end, the confluence of the circumstances antecedent to the burning should be examined in conjunction with the existing accounts of the crew members. That said, both the LA and the NLRC made a factual finding that prior to the burning incident, respondent was caught pilfering the vessel’s supplies for which he was told that he was to be relieved from his duties. This adequately supports the reasonable conclusion that respondent may have harbored a grudge against the captain and the chief steward who denied giving him the questioned items. At the very least, it was natural for him to brood over feelings of resentment considering his impending dismissal. These incidents shore up the theory that he was motivated to commit an act of sabotage which, however, backfired into his own burning.
In this relation, the Court observes that a definitive pronouncement on respondent’s mental unfitness need not be reached since the totality of the above-stated circumstances already figures into the rational inference that respondent’s burning was not a product of an impaired mental disposition but rather an incident which sprung from his own volition. Mental impairment connotes the lack of control over one’s action. If the actor is conscious of what he is doing, as respondent was in this case by sabotaging the ship, then a finding of mental unfitness is not needed. Differing from the CA s take on the matter, it is not contrary to human experience or logic for a spurned man to resort to tactics of desperation, however ludicrous or extreme those tactics may be, or however untoward or unfortunate its consequences may turn out, as in this case.
All told, petitioners having established through substantial evidence that respondent s injury was self-inflicted and, hence, not compensable pursuant to Section 20 (D) of the 1996 POEA-SEC, no grave abuse of discretion can be imputed against the NLRC in upholding the dismissal by the LA of his complaint for disability benefits. It is well-settled that an act of a court or tribunal can only be considered to be tainted with grave abuse of discretion when such act is done in a capricious or whimsical exercise of judgment as is equivalent to lack of jurisdiction.60 For the reasons herein detailed, the Court finds these qualities of capriciousness or whimsicality wanting in the case at bar and thus, holds that the CA erred in ruling that grave abuse of discretion exists. WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated October 31, 2006 and Resolution dated June 25, 2007 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 84769 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, the Decision dated January 30, 2004 of the National Labor Relation Commission dismissing respondent Alexander L. Moradas s complaint for permanent total disability benefits and other money claims is hereby REINSTATED.
ESTELA M. PERLAS-BERNABE
ANTONIO T. CARPIO
|ARTURO D. BRION|
|MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO|
JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ
A T T E S T A T I O N
I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court’s Division.
ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Chairperson, Second Division
C E R T I F I C A T I O N
Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution, and the Division Chairperson s Attestation, I certify that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court’s Division.
MARIA LOURDES P. A. SERENO
1 Rollo, pp. 44-86.
2 Id. at 94-118. Penned by then Presiding Justice Ruben T. Reyes (now retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court), with Associate Justices Juan Q. Enriquez, Jr. and Vicente S. E. Veloso, concurring.
3 Id. at 155-157.
4 Id. at 95. See also Contract of Employment dated July 17, 2000; id. at 165.
6 Id. at 96.
8 Id. at 249.
9 Id. at 250.
10 Id. at 181-182.
11 Id. at 96.
12 Id. at 232-245.
13 Id. at 234. Erroneously stated as "October 10, 2001" in the records.
14 Id. at 238. See also the statement dated December 7, 2000 signed by Captain Wirth; id. at 264-269. Based on the aforesaid statement, on October 10, 2000, while the vessel was docked in Hong Kong, Captain Wirth conducted a routine security inspection when he came across a large parcel which belonged to respondent lying on the crew passageway. Upon inspection, the box contained a television set, a day bed cover, several towels and some provisions, all belonging to the vessel. When asked why he was stealing the foregoing articles, respondent claimed that they were given to him as a present by the chief steward. However, when Captain Wirth asked the latter, he denied giving respondent the same. As a result, Captain Wirth informed respondent that his actions warranted his immediate dismissal.
15 Id. at 234.
16 Id. at 322-323. See Affidavit of Janito Subebe dated August 24, 2001. See also id. at 234.
17 Id. at 318-319. See Affidavit of Edgardo Israel dated August 27, 2001. See also id. at 234.
18 Id. at 258-260.
19 Id. at 320-321. See Sinumpaang Salaysay of Gile dated January 22, 2001.
20 Id. at 270-272. See Statement of Chief Officer Bejada dated December 7, 2000.
21 Id. at 318-319. See Affidavit of Edgardo Israel dated August 27, 2001.
22 Id. at 243-245.
23 Id. at 288-301.
24 Id. at 291.
25 Id. at 293-294.
26 Id. at 298-301.
27 Id. at 158-159.
28 Id. at 160-163. See Affidavit-Complaint dated February 21, 2001.
29 Id. at 400-408. Docketed as NLRC NCR OFW Case No. (M) 01-07-1316-00. Penned by LA Fe Superiaso-Cellan.
30 Id. at 407.
31 Id. at 405-406.
32 Id. at 408.
33 Id. at 485-492. Docketed as NLRC NCR CA No. 035689-03. Penned by Presiding Commissioner Lourdes C. Javier, with Commissioners Ernesto C. Verceles and Tito F. Genilo, concurring.
34 Id. at 491.
36 Id. at 510-511.
37 Id. at 94-118.
38 Id. at 105.
39 Id. at 107-108.
40 Id. at 108.
41 Id. at 107.
42 Id. at 110-115 and 117.
43 Id. at 115-117.
44 Id. at 155-157.
45 Dimagan v. Dacworks United, Incorporated, G.R. No. 191053, November 28, 2011, 661 SCRA 438, 445-446.
46 Magsaysay Maritime Corp. v. NLRC (Second Division), G.R. No. 186180, March 22, 2010, 616 SCRA 362, 372-373.
47 Rollo, p. 165.
48 On September 12, 2000, POEA Administrator Reynaldo A. Regalado issued Memorandum Circular No. 11, series of 2000, declaring, inter alia, that Section 20 (A), (B), and (D) of the 1996 POEA-SEC (on Compensation and benefits for Death and for Injury or Illness) shall continue to be applied in view of the Temporary Restraining Order dated September 11, 2000 issued by the Court in G.R. No. 143476 entitled, "Pedro Linsangan v. Laguesma" and G.R. No. 144479 entitled,
"MARINO, Inc. v. Laguesma," enjoining certain amendments introduced by the 2000 POEA-SEC. (See POEA Memorandum Circular No. 11, series of 2000 and POEA Memorandum Circular No. 2, series of 2002. See also Coastal Safeway Marine Services, Inc. v. Delgado, G.R. No. 168210, June 17, 2008, 554 SCRA 590).
49 Through POEA Memorandum Circular No. 2, series of 2002 which states:
x x x
50 Cootauco v. MMS Phil. Maritime Services, Inc., G.R. No. 184722, March 15, 2010, 615 SCRA 529, 544.
51 G.R. No. 172086, December 3, 2012, 686 SCRA 676.
52 Id. at 684-685.
53 Rollo, p. 275. Statement of 2nd Engineer Alexander Pynikov dated December 7, 2000.
54 Rollo, p. 407.
55 Id. at 324-332.
56 Id. at 740.
57 Id. at 95-96.
58 See CA Decision, rollo, p. 109.
59 See Progress Homes v. NLRC, 336 Phil. 265, 270 (1997).
60 Yu v. Hon. Reyes-Carpio, G.R. No. 189207, June 15, 2011, 652 SCRA 341, 348. (Citations omitted)