Seafarer’s psychological disorder as compensable work-related illness

A seafarer’s psychological disorderor  schizophrenia is considered as  a compensable  work-related illness triggered by  the work environment on board the vessel.

In compensation and disability claims, probability and not the ultimate degree of certainty is the test of proof. The precise medical causation of the illness is not significant, as long as the illness supervened in the course of employment and is reasonably shown to have been either precipitated or aggravated by work condition.

Using this principle, the Supreme Court awarded  total permanent disability benefits to seafarer Eduardo Obrero in Leonis Navigation Co., Inc. and World Marine Panama S.A. v.  Obrero,( G.R. No. 192754, September 07, 2016).

The Court stressed that  mariner’s  previous unremarkable stints as a seafarer reasonably support the conclusion that his work environment increased his risk of developing or triggering schizophrenia.

The seafarer’s demotion to messman—which is inherently work-related and was conveniently ignored by the employer in its pleadings—appears to be the event that precipitated his mental disorder.

He was able to accomplish his tasks without any issue as an ordinary seaman (OS)  and later as an able seaman (AB) from his previous contracts.

It was only after he was deployed as with a demoted position as a  messman onboard M/V Brilliant Arc that he began experiencing sleep interruptions and started having persecutory delusions, ultimately leading to the erratic behaviour detailed in the Master Report.

 Applying the standard of substantial evidence,the Court found as  reasonable and highly probable the explanation by  the seafarer’s personal doctor—that his prolonged stint at sea eventually taxed his coping abilities which rendered him incapable of handling the stress of being demoted.

Substantial evidence is that amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion

The Supreme Court disregarded the company doctor’s categorical declaration that schizophreniform disorder is not work-related since his expertise is general and cancer surgery.

The Court  noted that the seafarer’s personal doctor, a psychiatrist,   is in a better position to make a more accurate medical assessment with respect to his illness, which is psychiatric in nature and, therefore, her findings deserve greater weight.

Schizophrenia is the most common form of psychotic disorder which involves a complex set of disturbances of thinking, perception, affect and social behaviour and whose causes are still largely unknown.

 It is generally acknowledged that schizophrenia has a multifactorial etiology, with multiple susceptibility genes interacting with environmental insults to yield a range of phenotypes in the schizophrenia spectrum.

Stressful life events are identified as one of the risk factors in most etiological models of schizophrenia, with many studies reporting an excess of stressful life events in the few weeks prior to the onset of psychotic and affective disorders.

For disability to be compensable the POEA contract, two elements must concur: (1) the injury or illness must be work-related; and (2) the work-related injury or illness must have existed during the term of the seafarer’s employment contract.

 The POEA contract  defines  a work-related illness as “any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A with the conditions set therein satisfied.”

 For illnesses not mentioned under Section 32, the POEA contract  creates a disputable presumption in favor of the seafarer that these illnesses are work-related.

 In order to establish compensability of a non-occupational disease, reasonable proof of work-connection is sufficient—direct causal relation is not required. Thus, probability, not the ultimate degree of certainty, is the test of proof in compensation proceeding.

The Supreme Court have already held that schizophrenia may be compensable which negates any blanket exception against it as a compensable illness.

In Cabuyoc v. Inter-Orient (508 SCRA 87), permanent disability compensation for schizophrenia was awarded after finding that the seafarer’s illness and disability were the direct results of the demands of his shipboard employment contract and the harsh and inhumane treatment of the officers onboard the vessel.

In NFD International. v. NLRC (700 SCRA 53),   schizophrenia was declared to be work-related after the employer failed to negate the causal confluence between the epilepsy suffered by the seafarer after a mauling incident while onboard the vessel and his subsequent affliction of schizophrenia.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).