Mecenas v. CA (G.R. No. 88052)

Facts:

On the morning of 22 April 1980, the M/T “Tacloban City,” a barge-type oil tanker owned and operated by Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC), having unloaded its cargo of petroleum products, left Negros Occidental and headed towards Bataan. On the same day, the M/V “Don Juan,” an interisland vessel owned and operated by Negros Navigation, left Manila bound for Bacolod with 750 passengers listed in its manifest, and a complete set of officers and crew members. On the evening of the same day, the two vessels became aware of each other’s presence in the area by visual contact at a distance of 6 miles. They were fully aware that if they continued on their course, they will meet head on. Don Juan steered to the right; Tacloban City continued its course to the left. The two vessels thus collided and as a result, the “Don Juan” sank and hundreds of its passengers perished. Petitioners who were the children of the spouses Perfecto and Sofia Mecenas, their parents among the passengers whose bodies were never found, filed a complaint against Negros Navigation and its Captain Roger Santisteban. The trial court ruled that both vessels were at fault in the collision and awarded petitioners actual or compensatory damages, which was reduced on appeal. Petitioners likewise claim for exemplary damages.

Issue:

Whether or not petitioners herein are also entitled to exemplary damages.

Ruling: YES.

In respect of the petitioners’ claim for exemplary damages, it is only necessary to refer to Article 2232 of the Civil Code:

Article 2332. In contracts and quasi-contracts, the court may exemplary damages if the defendant acted in a wanton, fraudulent, reckless, oppressive or malevolent manner.

There is, therefore, no question that the “Don Juan” was at least as negligent as the M/T “Tacloban City” in the events leading up to the collision and the sinking of the “Don Juan.” The remaining question is whether the negligence on the part of the “Don Juan” reached that level of recklessness or gross negligence that our Civil Code requires for the imposition of exemplary damages. Our own review of the record in the case at bar requires us to answer this in the affirmative.

M/S Don Juan’s Master, Capt. Rogelio Santisteban, was playing mahjong before and up to the time of collision. Moreover, after the collision, he failed to institute appropriate measures to delay the sinking M/S Don Juan and to supervise properly the execution of his order of abandonship. As regards the officer on watch, Senior 3rd Mate Rogelio Devera, he admitted that he failed or did not call or inform Capt. Santisteban of the imminent danger of collision and of the actual collision itself. Also, he failed to assist his master to prevent the fast sinking of the ship. The record also indicates that Auxiliary Chief Mate Antonio Labordo displayed laxity in maintaining order among the passengers after the collision. There is also evidence that the “Don Juan” was carrying more passengers than she had been certified as allowed to carry.

Exemplary damages are designed by our civil law to permit the courts to reshape behaviour that is socially deleterious in its consequence by creating negative incentives or deterrents against such behaviour. In requiring compliance with the standard which is in fact that of the highest possible degree of diligence, from common carriers and in creating a presumption of negligence against them, the law seeks to compel them to control their employees, to tame their reckless instincts and to force them to take adequate care of human beings and their property. The Court will take judicial notice of the dreadful regularity with which grievous maritime disasters occur in our waters with massive loss of life. The bulk of our population is too poor to afford domestic air transportation. So it is that notwithstanding the frequent sinking of passenger vessels in our waters, crowds of people continue to travel by sea. This Court is prepared to use the instruments given to it by the law for securing the ends of law and public policy. One of those instruments is the institution of exemplary damages; one of those ends, of special importance in an archipelagic state like the Philippines, is the safe and reliable carriage of people and goods by sea. Considering the foregoing, we believe that an additional award in the amount of P200,000.00 as exemplary damages is quite modest.

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