MANILA (UPDATE) – The Supreme Court has ordered the reinstatement of the reckless imprudence case against an official of the Sulpicio Lines, Inc (SLI) in connection to the deadly 2008 capsizing of the M/V Princess of the Stars.
The high tribunal directed the Manila City Regional Trial Court, Branch 5 to reinstate the charges after it reversed and set aside the 2013 decision and the 2014 resolution of the Court of Appeals that ruled in favor of Edgar Go, SLI First Vice-President for Administration and team leader of the Crisis Management Committee.
"In this case, the criminal action instituted against respondent involved exclusively the criminal and civil liability of the latter arising from his criminal negligence as responsible officer of SLI," part of the 20-page decision penned by Justice Jose Reyes, Jr read.
The tribunal also noted that there was a separate civil action instituted against the company "based on culpa contractual incurred by it due to its failure to carry safely the passengers of Stars to their place of destination."
"The civil action against a shipowner for breach of contract of carriage does not preclude criminal prosecution against its employees whose negligence resulted in the death of or injuries to passengers," the Court held.
Passenger cargo M/V Princess of the Stars owned by SLI capsized in waters off Romblon province on its way to Cebu from Manila at the height of Typhoon Frank in 2008. Of the 849 persons on board, only 32 survived, 227 died, and 592 were reported missing.
Go and several others were indicted for reckless imprudence the following year. A Department of Justice panel found that Go was involved in making decisions on whether a vessel should be allowed to sail, such that he should have canceled or discouraged the voyage considering the severe weather, the court noted in its press release.
The company executive filed a petition for review, during which pendency then-Department of Transportation and Communication Sec. Leandro Mendoza issued a resolution exculpating SLI from any negligence and holding Captain Florencio Marimon solely responsible for the sinking of ship.
The DOJ denied Go's petition for review, prompting him to elevate the case to the CA after his motion for reconsideration was denied. The CA ruled in Go’s favor, holding that “respondent’s act of allowing the officers of the vessel to decide whether to set sail or not did not make him criminally liable as such decision was within the authority of the captain of the vessel, in coordination with the [Philippine Coast Guard] PCG, in view of the weather bulletin.”
The CA had said the DOJ panel erred when it claimed Go was criminally liable for not instructing the vessel to seek shelter or drop anchor in the face of the storm.
The Supreme Court ruled that it will not interfere with the executive determination of probable cause for the purpose of filing an information in the absence of grave abuse of discretion. It noted that the DOJ panel’s resolution supports a prima facie finding that reckless imprudence has been committed.
The tribunal found that the DOJ Panel did not only rely on affidavits of complainants but also held clarificatory hearings in finding that first, Go, among others, failed to closely monitor and assess the movement of the vessel as against the movement of Typhoon Frank such that he did not instruct the captain to take shelter in the vicinity of Batangas despite information from PAGASA that the vessel would come face to face with Typhoon Frank if it continued along its regular route.
The panel also found that Go’s acts, though not malicious, were indeed voluntary and that his act of allowing the vessel to sail despite the severe weather condition demonstrated inexcusable lack of precaution on the latter’s part, the Supreme Court noted.
The Court further held that shipowner’s liability based on the contract of carriage is separate and distinct from the criminal liability of those who may be found negligent. It is beyond dispute that a civil action based on the contractual liability of a common carrier is distinct from an action based on criminal negligence, added the tribunal.
In this case, it said that the criminal action instituted against Go involved exclusively the criminal and civil liability of the latter arising from his criminal negligence as a responsible officer of SLI.