Mercantile Law

SULPICIO LINES, INC., v. SESANTE G.R. No. 172682 July 27, 2016 Liabilities of Common Carriers, the Act of God Doctrine

FACTS:

On September 18, 1998, the M/V Princess of the Orient, a passenger vessel owned and operated by the petitioner, sank near Fortune Island in Batangas. Of the 388 recorded passengers, 150 were lost. Napoleon Sesante, then a member of the PNP and a lawyer, was one of the passengers who survived the sinking. He sued the petitioner for breach of contract and damages.

Sesante alleged in his complaint that the vessel left the Port of Manila during a stormy weather. Around 11:00 p.m., while at the uppermost deck, he witnessed the strong winds and big waves pounding the vessel, the passengers panicking, crying for help and frantically scrambling for life jackets in the absence of the vessel’s officers and crew.

Sesante sustained injuries, and had lost money, jewelry, important documents, police uniforms and the .45 caliber pistol issued to him by the PNP.

In its defense, the petitioner insisted on the seaworthiness of the M/V Princess of the Orient due to its having been cleared to sail from the Port of Manila by the proper authorities, and that the sinking had been due to force majeure.

The RTC rendered its judgment in favor of the Sesante.

Pending its appeal in the CA, Sesante passed away. He was substituted by his heirs.

The CA, in its decision, lowered the award of temperate damages; and held that despite the seaworthiness of the vessel, the petitioner remained civilly liable because its officers and crew had been negligent in performing their duties.

Still aggrieved, Sulpicio Lines moved for reconsideration, but the CA denied the motion.

Hence, this appeal.

ISSUES:

  1. Whether  or not the petitioner is liable for damages.
  2. Whether or not  notification is required before the common carrier becomes liable for lost belongings that remained in the custody of the passenger.

RULING:

The appeal lacks merit.

1. A contract of carriage generates a relation attended with public duty, neglect or malfeasance of the carrier’s employees and gives ground for an action for damages.

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.

On the other hand, Article 1756 of the Civil Code lays down the presumption of negligence against the common carrier in the event of death or injury of its passenger, viz.:

Article 1756. In case of death of or injuries to passengers, common carriers are presumed to have been at fault or to have acted negligently, unless they prove that they observed extraordinary diligence.

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.

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.

[T]he principle embodied in the act of God doctrine strictly requires that the act must be occasioned solely by the violence of nature. When the effect is found to be in part the result of the participation of man, whether due to his active intervention or neglect or failure to act, the whole occurrence is then humanized and removed from the rules applicable to the acts of God.

In the case at bar, there was miscalculation in judgment on the part of the Captain when he erroneously navigated the ship at her last crucial moment. x x x

2. With regard to the baggage in possession of passengers, notification is required before the common carrier becomes liable for lost belongings that remained in the custody of the passenger.

Article 1754 of the Civil Code does not exempt the common carrier from liability in case of loss, but only highlights the degree of care required of it depending on who has the custody of the belongings.

Hence, the law requires the common carrier to observe the same diligence as the hotel keepers in case the baggage remains with the passenger; otherwise, extraordinary diligence must be exercised.

Furthermore, the liability of the common carrier attaches even if the loss or damage to the belongings resulted from the acts of the common carrier’s employees, the only exception being where such loss or damages is due to force majeure.

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