Sulpicio loses court case on Princess of the Orient fatality

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 04 2008 12:20 AM | Updated as of Jul 04 2008 08:20 AM

The Philippine Star

CEBU – A Regional Trial Court judge here awarded P6 million to the heirs of one of the fatalities in the M/V Princess of the Orient, another ship owned by Sulpicio Lines Inc., which sank off Batangas in 1998.

Reporters got a copy only last Wednesday of the ruling issued by Judge Estella Alma Singco last Feb. 1. The judge found Sulpicio Lines liable for civil damages for the death of Ernesto Unabia, one of 70 confirmed fatalities when Princess of the Orient sank after being battered by strong waves near Fortune Island in Batangas on Sept. 18, 1998. Eighty passengers and crew remain missing.

Sulpicio Lines is currently facing a possible class suit for the death of more than 800 people after the company-owned liner M/V Princess of the Stars sank off Sibuyan Island in Romblon at the height of typhoon "Frank" last June 21.

Singco ordered the shipping company to pay Unabia’s heirs P6.240 million in compensatory damages for lost earnings, P100,000 for moral damages, P50,000 indemnity and another P50,000 for attorney’s fees and litigation cost.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by Verna Unabia and her three children over the death of Ernesto, a seaman in an international ship earning $3,000 a month.

Singco, in her 19-page decision, said that Sulpicio Lines’ failure to take disciplinary action against the ship captain, Esrum Mahilum, who also figured in several sea mishaps prior to the Princess of the Orient tragedy, made the firm’s management liable for negligence.

Records of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) showed that the Princess of the Orient touched bottom at the entrance of North Harbor in Manila, sideswiped another container vessel and the engine room even caught fire while berthed at North Harbor, and the vessel was towed from Manila to Cebu then to Singapore for repairs and dry docking.

But, despite all these incidents, Sulpicio Lines retained Mahilum as the ship’s captain until the vessel sank.

The Board of Marine Inquiry that investigated the mishap found that the company lacked the initiative to discipline Mahilum.

"For failing on the part of the defendant to take disciplinary action against Capt. Mahilum relative to those incidents, and allowing him to retain his job, the defendant unnecessarily exposed the vessel and the passengers to the tragic mishap," Singco said in her decision.

Singco cited investigation reports of the Marina that blamed Mahilum for his incompetence and negligence.

Mahilum, who remains missing until now, failed to supervise his officers and crew in the process of abandoning the ship.

According to the court, while it (Mahilum’s retention as skipper) did not cause the sinking, "such failure doubtless contributed materially to the loss of life."

Singco said that Sulpicio Lines failed to overcome the presumption of fault or negligence that arises in cases of death or injuries to the passengers.

"Under Articles 2176 and 2180 of the Civil Code, owners and managers are responsible for damages caused by the negligence of a servant or an employee, the master or employer is presumed to be negligent either in the selection or in the supervision of that employee," Singco said.

The judge added that such presumption may be overcome only by satisfactorily showing that the employer exercised the care and diligence of a good father in the selection and the supervision of its employees, as ruled by the Supreme Court in the case Pestaño vs. Sumayang.

Singco said that based on evidence presented by the complainant, Sulpicio Lines clearly failed to exercise due diligence in the supervision of its employees.

"Hence, the defendant (Sulpicio Lines) is liable for the death of the plaintiff’s husband," the court ruled.

In awarding the damages to the complainant, the court computed it based on the victim’s gross annual earnings multiplied by the number of years he was supposed to be employed until his retirement. According to the wife, her husband was only 37 years old at the time of the incident, which means he still had 13 years before retirement as a seaman working on foreign vessels.

Seaman Unabia was earning $3,000 a month or P120,000 based on the P40:$1 exchange rate in 1998. Based on the court’s computation, Unabia would have earned P6.240 million until his age of retirement.

Unabia’s case is the first to be decided among the cases filed by other victims of the Princess of the Orient tragedy.

Another civil case is still pending before the RTC branch 23, which is reportedly due for judgment in August.

Unabia’s family is among the very few who refused to amicably settle their claims with the shipping company.

Among the passengers of the ill-fated ship that survived were Cebu City councilor Edgardo Labella and his wife and the late Colonel Napoleon Sesante, who died of cancer.

Labella and Sesante did not join the class suit that some of the victims’ heirs have filed against the shipping company. – Fred Languido/Freeman News Service