Civil Law

Sulpicio Lines, Inc. vs Napoleon Sesante

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G.R. No. 172682 – 791 Phil. 409 – 798 SCRA 459 – Civil Law – Torts and Damages – Article 1759 – Common Carriers – Liability of Employers; Liability of Vehicle Owners – Extraordinary Diligence – Fortuitous Event; when not available as a defense

In September 1998, despite the bad weather, the M/V Princess of the Orient, a passenger boat owned by Sulpicio Lines, Inc. sailed from the port of Manila. The vessel sank killing about 150 people. Napoleon Sesante was one of those who survived. He sued Sulpicio Lines for damages.

It was alleged that Sulpicio’s employees were negligent and that the boat should have never sailed due to the bad weather. Sulpicio argued that the boat was seaworthy and that the incident happened due to fortuitous event.

The trial court found that Sulpicio had not established its due diligence in the selection and supervision of the vessel crew; that the ship officers had failed to inspect the stowage of cargoes despite being aware of the storm signal; that the officers and crew of the vessel had not immediately sent a distress signal to the Philippine Coast Guard; that the ship captain had not called for the “abandon ship” protocol; and that based on the report of the Board of Marine Inquiry, the erroneous maneuvering of the vessel by the captain during the extreme weather condition had been the immediate and proximate cause of the sinking.

ISSUE: Whether or not fortuitous event is a defense in this case.

HELD: No. Article 1759 of the Civil Code does not establish a presumption of negligence because it explicitly makes the common carrier liable in the event of death or injury to passengers due to the negligence or fault of the common carrier’s employees. The liability of common carriers under Article 1759 is demanded by the duty of extraordinary diligence required of common carriers in safely carrying their passengers.

The presumption of negligence applies so long as there is evidence showing that: (a) a contract exists between the passenger and the common carrier; and (b) the injury or death took place during the existence of such contract. In such event, the burden shifts to the common carrier to prove its observance of extraordinary diligence, and that an unforeseen event or force majeure had caused the injury.

A common carrier may be relieved of any liability arising from a fortuitous event pursuant to Article 1174 of the Civil Code. But while it may free a common carrier from liability, the provision still requires exclusion of human agency from the cause of injury or loss. For a common carrier to be absolved from liability in case of force majeure, it is not enough that the accident was caused by a fortuitous event. The common carrier must still prove that it did not contribute to the occurrence of the incident due to its own or its employees’ negligence.

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