Philippine fights to keep away ambulance chasers from victimizing seafarers

Unethical business practice.

As the Philippine maritime sector prepared to dispatch seafarers who have been grounded for months, representatives of the government, as well as local and international industry groups, got together to discuss a problem that has long hounded seafarers. 

According to Dr. Conrado Oca, president of the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP), many Filipino seafarers have been victimized by people or groups that persuaded them to make improper personal injury claims against their employers. 

And, Oca said, this practice, also called ambulance chasing, has affected the international reputation of Filipino seafarers. 

“This is true because I talked to people internationally and they are saying, this is really the only big obstacle in our industry,” Oca said during a forum organized by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA). 

“For [Filipino] seafarers, ambulance chasers are those who offer to help you get claims or benefits from your employers in the wrong or fraudulent way. In the end, you and your families will have to spend a lot when you engage ambulance chasers,” Oca said in Tagalog. 

Ambulance chasing has long been deemed unethical and malpractice in the global legal profession and, in cases involving seafarers, has been a crime in the Philippines since 2015. 

In a 2018 case, a father-and-son team of lawyers was meted a two-year suspension for ambulance chasing and failing to account for the monetary award of a seaman who sued his employer over serious injuries he incurred after a fall inside a tanker. 

The case was filed in Singapore and the seafarer won US$95,000 in a settlement, but the Filipino lawyers gave him less than US$21,000 after deducting their 35 percent share plus the separate share of lawyers in Singapore.  

The Philippine Supreme Court found in favor of the seaman and ruled that the lawyers violated professional ethics and collected much more than the amount stipulated in their engagement contract. 

MARINA administrator Robert Empedrad said ambulance chasing has again become rampant. 

“That is a serious problem. Our seafarers are the victims here,” Empedrad told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview. “A lot of our seafarers are being victimized by these devious ambulance chasers who prey on Filipino seafarers.” 

Seafarers, who were injured while at work, are sweet-talked by ambulance chasers to seek compensation for supposed disabilities caused by their injuries, but once they get the money, they are charged hefty fees. 

“If you are going to board a ship, you must be in good health, physically fit. But if you claim insurance for a permanent disability, how can you get back on the ship if you are disabled?” Empedrad asked.  

Seafarers should have right information to make decisions

To address the issue, MARINA hosted a forum last month to forge a memorandum of understanding on ambulance chasing by formalizing the formation of a broad alliance in the combat against illegal practices that victimize Filipino seafarers. 

The meeting was attended by AMOSUP, International Seafarers’ Welfare Assistance Network, National Conciliation and Mediation Board, National Labor Relations Commission, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, and the National Maritime Polytechnic. 

At the forum, Oca said they have long tried to find a way to stop ambulance chasers, but they realized that the best solution is to inform seafarers how they can properly address their grievances or issues with their employers through the appropriate agencies and authorities without the need to pay third parties excessive professional or consultation fees. 

“We will always believe that tripartism—or the cooperation among employers, the government, and workers organization—is the best approach,” Oca said.  

To protect seafarers, Oca said, they should be informed of their rights. 

“We hope to reach out to them about their contractual rights, legal avenues, and processes involved in claiming their benefits. This initiative is also greatly supported by some shipping companies,” Oca added. 

Empedrad agreed and said they are already addressing the issue by educating seafarers with the necessary information so they do not fall prey to the ambulance chasers. 

“We need to communicate with seafarers. Second, we need good networking so that we can catch these individuals who are victimizing our seafarers,” Empedrad said. 

“We are trying to find solutions that work well. For example, before they go into seafaring, there should be a module about ambulance chasing so they won’t be victimized. Let’s educate them,” he added. “I have a team that is studying the problem of ambulance chasing. Because if we can’t address this, the shipowners will leave us because it’s expensive.” 

Empedrad also urged the manning agencies in the country to protect their seafarers by educating them against ambulance chasing. 

He added that it is up to seafarers if they let these ambulance chasers fool them, but he warned that once a seafarer receives a permanent disability on his medical certificate, MARINA will have to void their licenses. 

Photo credit: iStock/Iam Anupong

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