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Web alert: Philippines Supreme Court rules that death of a seafarer which resulted from a deliberate or wilful act on his part will not be compensable

16 January 2015

The Supreme Court in the Philippines recently gave a ruling, which could set a precedent, that a claim for death benefits would be denied in cases where the seaman committed suicide.
 
During the term of the Engine Boy’s employment contract he regretfully passed away aboard the vessel, apparently by his own hand. His widow brought a claim for death compensation benefits under the POEA Standard Employment Contract and the Associate Marine Officer's and Seafarer's Union of the Philippines Collective Bargaining Agreement (AMOSUP-CBA). She also claimed legal fees and moral and exemplary damages.
 
Although the CBA excluded the payment of benefits in the event of suicide, both the NLRC and the Court of Appeal held that death compensation benefits should be awarded to the heirs since the seaman’s death was not proven to be self-inflicted. The company appealed this decision in the Supreme Court. They argued that, according to the autopsy conducted by the Medical Examiner in Italy, the cause of death was suicide by hanging and, as such, the death was not compensable. The company also presented two suicide notes which, they argued, were evidence of the fact that the seafarer took his own life.
 
The Supreme Court ruled that the death of a seafarer during the term of his employment would typically result in the shipowner employer being liable to the seafarer's heirs for death compensation benefits. However, it also held that ‘the employer may be exempt from liability if it can successfully prove that the seaman's death was caused by an injury directly attributable to his deliberate or wilful act.’
 
The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeal had failed to satisfactorily appreciate the presence and content of the seafarer’s suicide notes and criticised the Court of Appeal’s ruling that there was a lack of proof that the seafarer wrote the notes. On the contrary, the court ruled that the credibility and authenticity of the suicide notes were beyond doubt. 
 
The Supreme Court summarised its ruling as follows:

It is settled that when the death of a seaman resulted from a deliberate or wilful act on his own life, and it is directly attributable to the seaman, such death is not compensable.'  

The court’s decision made it clear that, in cases where there is conclusive evidence that the seafarer committed suicide, the death is not compensable and any heirs are not entitled to any compensation or benefits.
 
Members are advised to consider the inclusion of a 'suicide clause' in contracts of employment to safeguard members' rights.


(Wallem Maritime Services, Inc. and Reginaldo Oben/Wallem Shipmanagement Limited versus Donnabelle Pedrajas and Sean Jade Pedrajas; GR. No. 192993; Third Division; August 11, 2014; Supreme Court Associate Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, Ponente)