Wrong venue

©PhilSTAR Daily, Inc

This is the case of a seafarer who died while performing his job. Under existing laws, his heirs are entitled to some monetary compensation and damages. The main questions here are: what are these compensations and damages and where should they be filed?

This is the case of Lando who has four children: Virgie, James, Rosie and Jerry. To support his children, Lando works as Second Mate in the tugboat of a construction equipment company (the Company). In the course of his employment and as the tugboat was towing an overloaded barge, a recoiling rope accidentally struck Lando, causing him to be thrown toward the tugboat’s iron bars. So Lando was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Months after, the company contacted his children and told them that it would give them the amount of P200,000 as compensation for Lando’s death if they would execute a waiver and quitclaim in its favor. The children refused the offer and did not hear anymore from the company.

So, Virgie, in her own behalf and as the attorney-in-fact of James, Rosie and Jerry, was constrained to file before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), Regional Arbitration Branch VI a complaint against the Company seeking payment, among others, of: (a) death compensation benefits; (b) actual, moral, exemplary damages and attorney’s fees for the company’s alleged negligence resulting in the death of Lando; (c) additional death benefits and (d) other monetary claims due to Lando consisting of holiday pay, service incentive leave pay and 13th month pay.

For its defense the Company maintained that (a) the children should receive death benefits not from it but from the Social Security System (SSS); (b) the amount of P200,000 it offered to them represents the proceeds of the accidental death insurance policy which it voluntarily secured in favor of its employees but which the children unfortunately refused to accept; and (c) it had already paid Lando’s monetary benefits as shown by Lando’s pay slips.

After hearing both sides and the submission of position papers, the Labor Arbiter (LA) dismissed the complaint for lack of cause of action because: (1) the claim for death benefits should have been filed with the SSS; (2) the claimants failed to submit evidence of the company’s liability for Lando’s death; (3) there is no merit in their claim for damages; and (4) the company had already paid all the wages and monetary benefits due to Lando.

This ruling was affirmed by the NLRC with the modification ordering the company to turn over to the heirs the P200,000 accidental death insurance proceeds without any condition. The NLRC ruled that: First, the children of Lando should seek payment of death benefits from SSS because Lando was an inter-island seafarer, or working within Philippine waters and there is no provision showing that the company is liable for death benefits; Second, it has no jurisdiction over the claim for damages arising from the Company’s alleged negligence as it is a claim based on torts which is cognizable by the regular courts; Third, the release of the additional death insurance proceeds amounting to P200,000 should be without condition, considering the children are really entitled to it: and Finally, the other monetary claims had already been paid by the Company.

This ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals (CA) which found no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC.

The Supreme Court (SC) ruled that the CA correctly found no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC because its ruling is in accord with the evidence on record, as well as settled principles of labor law. According to SC, Lando as a seafarer was merely employed in an inter-island sailing domestic waters. So his employment was not covered by any Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA)-Standard Employment Contract involving seafarers sailing in international waters, which specifically contain provisions making an employer liable if a seafarer dies while on duty. Absent said provisions, Lando’s death on duty is governed by the Labor Code.

In this regard, the clear intent of the law is to relieve the employer of the obligations to directly pay its employees, compensation for work connected illness or injury because this is already part of the production or business activity. Hence, once the Company pays its share to the State Insurance Fund, it is not liable for Lando’s death benefits because it is the State Insurance Fund, particularly the SSS, which is liable therefore.

As regards the claim for damages arising from the Company’s purported negligence which resulted in Lando’s death, the cause of action is for torts or quasi-delict. A claim specifically grounded on the employer’s negligence to provide a safe, healthy and workable environment is a case for quasi-delict which is under the jurisdiction of the regular courts. Hence the heirs of Lando should file the proper case before the regular courts.

As for the additional death benefits, the NLRC already ruled that Lando’s heirs are entitled to the P200,000 representing the accidental death insurance proceeds. So the Company should unconditionally turn over said amount to them. And regarding the other monetary claims, the same has already been paid as found by the Labor Tribunal and the CA. These factual findings are generally accorded not only with respect but with finality and are thus binding on the SC (Heirs of Andag etc. DMC Equipment and Resources Inc. etc. G.R. 244361, July 13, 2020).

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