[G.R. NO. 129015 : August 13, 2004]
SAMSUNG CONSTRUCTION COMPANY PHILIPPINES, INC., Petitioner, v. FAR EAST BANK AND TRUST COMPANY AND COURT OF APPEALS, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
Called to fore in the present petition is a classic textbook question - if a bank pays out on a forged check, is it liable to reimburse the drawer from whose account the funds were paid out? The Court of Appeals, in reversing a trial court decision adverse to the bank, invoked tenuous reasoning to acquit the bank of liability. We reverse, applying time-honored principles of law.
The salient facts follow.
Plaintiff Samsung Construction Company Philippines, Inc. ("Samsung Construction"), while based in Biñan, Laguna, maintained a current account with defendant Far East Bank and Trust Company1 ("FEBTC") at the latter's Bel-Air, Makati branch.2 The sole signatory to Samsung Construction's account was Jong Kyu Lee ("Jong"), its Project Manager,3 while the checks remained in the custody of the company's accountant, Kyu Yong Lee ("Kyu").4
On 19 March 1992, a certain Roberto Gonzaga presented for payment FEBTC Check No. 432100 to the bank's branch in Bel-Air, Makati. The check, payable to cash and drawn against Samsung Construction's current account, was in the amount of Nine Hundred Ninety Nine Thousand Five Hundred Pesos (
At the same time, Justiani forwarded the check to the branch Senior Assistant Cashier Gemma Velez, as it was bank policy that two bank branch officers approve checks exceeding One Hundred Thousand Pesos, for payment or encashment. Velez likewise counterchecked the signature on the check as against that on the signature card. He too concluded that the check was indeed signed by Jong. Velez then forwarded the check and signature card to Shirley Syfu, another bank officer, for approval. Syfu then noticed that Jose Sempio III ("Sempio"), the assistant accountant of Samsung Construction, was also in the bank. Sempio was well-known to Syfu and the other bank officers, he being the assistant accountant of Samsung Construction. Syfu showed the check to Sempio, who vouched for the genuineness of Jong's signature. Confirming the identity of Gonzaga, Sempio said that the check was for the purchase of equipment for Samsung Construction. Satisfied with the genuineness of the signature of Jong, Syfu authorized the bank's encashment of the check to Gonzaga.
The following day, the accountant of Samsung Construction, Kyu, examined the balance of the bank account and discovered that a check in the amount of Nine Hundred Ninety Nine Thousand Five Hundred Pesos (
In a letter dated 6 May 1992, Samsung Construction, through counsel, demanded that FEBTC credit to it the amount of Nine Hundred Ninety Nine Thousand Five Hundred Pesos (
During the trial, both sides presented their respective expert witnesses to testify on the claim that Jong's signature was forged. Samsung Corporation, which had referred the check for investigation to the NBI, presented Senior NBI Document Examiner Roda B. Flores. She testified that based on her examination, she concluded that Jong's signature had been forged on the check. On the other hand, FEBTC, which had sought the assistance of the Philippine National Police (PNP),14 presented Rosario C. Perez, a document examiner from the PNP Crime Laboratory. She testified that her findings showed that Jong's signature on the check was genuine.15
Confronted with conflicting expert testimony, the RTC chose to believe the findings of the NBI expert. In a Decision dated 25 April 1994, the RTC held that Jong's signature on the check was forged and accordingly directed the bank to pay or credit back to Samsung Construction's account the amount of Nine Hundred Ninety Nine Thousand Five Hundred Pesos (
FEBTC timely appealed to the Court of Appeals. On 28 November 1996, the Special Fourteenth Division of the Court of Appeals rendered a Decision,16 reversing the RTC Decision and absolving FEBTC from any liability. The Court of Appeals held that the contradictory findings of the NBI and the PNP created doubt as to whether there was forgery.17 Moreover, the appellate court also held that assuming there was forgery, it occurred due to the negligence of Samsung Construction, imputing blame on the accountant Kyu for lack of care and prudence in keeping the checks, which if observed would have prevented Sempio from gaining access thereto.18 The Court of Appeals invoked the ruling in PNB v. National City Bank of New York 19 that, if a loss, which must be borne by one or two innocent persons, can be traced to the neglect or fault of either, such loss would be borne by the negligent party, even if innocent of intentional fraud.20
Samsung Construction now argues that the Court of Appeals had seriously misapprehended the facts when it overturned the RTC's finding of forgery. It also contends that the appellate court erred in finding that it had been negligent in safekeeping the check, and in applying the equity principle enunciated in PNB v. National City Bank of New York.
Since the trial court and the Court of Appeals arrived at contrary findings on questions of fact, the Court is obliged to examine the record to draw out the correct conclusions. Upon examination of the record, and based on the applicable laws and jurisprudence, we reverse the Court of Appeals.
Section 23 of the Negotiable Instruments Law states:
The general rule is to the effect that a forged signature is "wholly inoperative," and payment made "through or under such signature" is ineffectual or does not discharge the instrument.21 If payment is made, the drawee cannot charge it to the drawer's account. The traditional justification for the result is that the drawee is in a superior position to detect a forgery because he has the maker's signature and is expected to know and compare it.22 The rule has a healthy cautionary effect on banks by encouraging care in the comparison of the signatures against those on the signature cards they have on file. Moreover, the very opportunity of the drawee to insure and to distribute the cost among its customers who use checks makes the drawee an ideal party to spread the risk to insurance.23
Brady, in his treatise The Law of Forged and Altered Checks, elucidates:
By no means is the principle rendered obsolete with the advent of modern commercial transactions. Contemporary texts still affirm this well-entrenched standard. Nickles, in his book Negotiable Instruments and Other Related Commercial Paper wrote, thus:
Under Section 23 of the Negotiable Instruments Law, forgery is a real or absolute defense by the party whose signature is forged.26 On the premise that Jong's signature was indeed forged, FEBTC is liable for the loss since it authorized the discharge of the forged check. Such liability attaches even if the bank exerts due diligence and care in preventing such faulty discharge. Forgeries often deceive the eye of the most cautious experts; and when a bank has been so deceived, it is a harsh rule which compels it to suffer although no one has suffered by its being deceived.27 The forgery may be so near like the genuine as to defy detection by the depositor himself, and yet the bank is liable to the depositor if it pays the check.28
Thus, the first matter of inquiry is into whether the check was indeed forged. A document formally presented is presumed to be genuine until it is proved to be fraudulent. In a forgery trial, this presumption must be overcome but this can only be done by convincing testimony and effective illustrations.29
In ruling that forgery was not duly proven, the Court of Appeals held:
This reasoning is pure sophistry. Any litigator worth his or her salt would never allow an opponent's expert witness to stand uncontradicted, thus the spectacle of competing expert witnesses is not unusual. The trier of fact will have to decide which version to believe, and explain why or why not such version is more credible than the other. Reliance therefore cannot be placed merely on the fact that there are colliding opinions of two experts, both clothed with the presumption of official duty, in order to draw a conclusion, especially one which is extremely crucial. Doing so is tantamount to a jurisprudential cop-out.
Much is expected from the Court of Appeals as it occupies the penultimate tier in the judicial hierarchy. This Court has long deferred to the appellate court as to its findings of fact in the understanding that it has the appropriate skill and competence to plough through the minutiae that scatters the factual field. In failing to thoroughly evaluate the evidence before it, and relying instead on presumptions haphazardly drawn, the Court of Appeals was sadly remiss. Of course, courts, like humans, are fallible, and not every error deserves a stern rebuke. Yet, the appellate court's error in this case warrants special attention, as it is absurd and even dangerous as a precedent. If this rationale were adopted as a governing standard by every court in the land, barely any actionable claim would prosper, defeated as it would be by the mere invocation of the existence of a contrary "expert" opinion.
On the other hand, the RTC did adjudge the testimony of the NBI expert as more credible than that of the PNP, and explained its reason behind the conclusion:
During the testimony of PNP expert Rosario Perez, the RTC bluntly noted that "apparently, there [are] differences on that questioned signature and the standard signatures."31 This Court, in examining the signatures, makes a similar finding. The PNP expert excused the noted "differences" by asserting that they were mere "variations," which are normal deviations found in writing.32 Yet the RTC, which had the opportunity to examine the relevant documents and to personally observe the expert witness, clearly disbelieved the PNP expert. The Court similarly finds the testimony of the PNP expert as unconvincing. During the trial, she was confronted several times with apparent differences between strokes in the questioned signature and the genuine samples. Each time, she would just blandly assert that these differences were just "variations,"33 as if the mere conjuration of the word would sufficiently disquiet whatever doubts about the deviations. Such conclusion, standing alone, would be of little or no value unless supported by sufficiently cogent reasons which might amount almost to a demonstration.34
The most telling difference between the questioned and genuine signatures examined by the PNP is in the final upward stroke in the signature, or "the point to the short stroke of the terminal in the capital letter 'L,' " as referred to by the PNP examiner who had marked it in her comparison chart as "point no. 6." To the plain eye, such upward final stroke consists of a vertical line which forms a ninety degree (90' ) angle with the previous stroke. Of the twenty one (21) other genuine samples examined by the PNP, at least nine (9) ended with an upward stroke.35 However, unlike the questioned signature, the upward strokes of eight (8) of these signatures are looped, while the upward stroke of the seventh36 forms a severe forty-five degree (45' ) with the previous stroke. The difference is glaring, and indeed, the PNP examiner was confronted with the inconsistency in point no. 6.
Again, the PNP examiner downplayed the uniqueness of the final stroke in the questioned signature as a mere variation,38 the same excuse she proffered for the other marked differences noted by the Court and the counsel for petitioner.39
There is no reason to doubt why the RTC gave credence to the testimony of the NBI examiner, and not the PNP expert's. The NBI expert, Rhoda Flores, clearly qualifies as an expert witness. A document examiner for fifteen years, she had been promoted to the rank of Senior Document Examiner with the NBI, and had held that rank for twelve years prior to her testimony. She had placed among the top five examinees in the Competitive Seminar in Question Document Examination, conducted by the NBI Academy, which qualified her as a document examiner.40 She had trained with the Royal Hongkong Police Laboratory and is a member of the International Association for Identification.41 As of the time she testified, she had examined more than fifty to fifty-five thousand questioned documents, on an average of fifteen to twenty documents a day.42 In comparison, PNP document examiner Perez admitted to having examined only around five hundred documents as of her testimony.43
In analyzing the signatures, NBI Examiner Flores utilized the scientific comparative examination method consisting of analysis, recognition, comparison and evaluation of the writing habits with the use of instruments such as a magnifying lense, a stereoscopic microscope, and varied lighting substances. She also prepared enlarged photographs of the signatures in order to facilitate the necessary comparisons.44 She compared the questioned signature as against ten (10) other sample signatures of Jong. Five of these signatures were executed on checks previously issued by Jong, while the other five contained in business letters Jong had signed.45 The NBI found that there were significant differences in the handwriting characteristics existing between the questioned and the sample signatures, as to manner of execution, link/connecting strokes, proportion characteristics, and other identifying details.46
The RTC was sufficiently convinced by the NBI examiner's testimony, and explained her reasons in its Decisions. While the Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld the findings of the PNP, it failed to convincingly demonstrate why such findings were more credible than those of the NBI expert. As a throwaway, the assailed Decision noted that the PNP, not the NBI, had the opportunity to examine the specimen signature card signed by Jong, which was relied upon by the employees of FEBTC in authenticating Jong's signature. The distinction is irrelevant in establishing forgery. Forgery can be established comparing the contested signatures as against those of any sample signature duly established as that of the persons whose signature was forged.
FEBTC lays undue emphasis on the fact that the PNP examiner did compare the questioned signature against the bank signature cards. The crucial fact in question is whether or not the check was forged, not whether the bank could have detected the forgery. The latter issue becomes relevant only if there is need to weigh the comparative negligence between the bank and the party whose signature was forged.
At the same time, the Court of Appeals failed to assess the effect of Jong's testimony that the signature on the check was not his.47 The assertion may seem self-serving at first blush, yet it cannot be ignored that Jong was in the best position to know whether or not the signature on the check was his. While his claim should not be taken at face value, any averments he would have on the matter, if adjudged as truthful, deserve primacy in consideration. Jong's testimony is supported by the findings of the NBI examiner. They are also backed by factual circumstances that support the conclusion that the assailed check was indeed forged. Judicial notice can be taken that is highly unusual in practice for a business establishment to draw a check for close to a million pesos and make it payable to cash or bearer, and not to order. Jong immediately reported the forgery upon its discovery. He filed the appropriate criminal charges against Sempio, the putative forger.48
Now for determination is whether Samsung Construction was precluded from setting up the defense of forgery under Section 23 of the Negotiable Instruments Law. The Court of Appeals concluded that Samsung Construction was negligent, and invoked the doctrines that "where a loss must be borne by one of two innocent person, can be traced to the neglect or fault of either, it is reasonable that it would be borne by him, even if innocent of any intentional fraud, through whose means it has succeeded49 or who put into the power of the third person to perpetuate the wrong."50 Applying these rules, the Court of Appeals determined that it was the negligence of Samsung Construction that allowed the encashment of the forged check.
We recognize that Section 23 of the Negotiable Instruments Law bars a party from setting up the defense of forgery if it is guilty of negligence.52 Yet, we are unable to conclude that Samsung Construction was guilty of negligence in this case. The appellate court failed to explain precisely how the Korean accountant was negligent or how more care and prudence on his part would have prevented the forgery. We cannot sustain this "tar and feathering" resorted to without any basis.
The bare fact that the forgery was committed by an employee of the party whose signature was forged cannot necessarily imply that such party's negligence was the cause for the forgery. Employers do not possess the preternatural gift of cognition as to the evil that may lurk within the hearts and minds of their employees. The Court's pronouncement in PCI Bank v. Court of Appeals 53 applies in this case, to wit:
Admittedly, the record does not clearly establish what measures Samsung Construction employed to safeguard its blank checks. Jong did testify that his accountant, Kyu, kept the checks inside a "safety box,"55 and no contrary version was presented by FEBTC. However, such testimony cannot prove that the checks were indeed kept in a safety box, as Jong's testimony on that point is hearsay, since Kyu, and not Jong, would have the personal knowledge as to how the checks were kept.
Still, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can conclude that there was no negligence on Samsung Construction's part. The presumption remains that every person takes ordinary care of his concerns,56 and that the ordinary course of business has been followed.57 Negligence is not presumed, but must be proven by him who alleges it.58 While the complaint was lodged at the instance of Samsung Construction, the matter it had to prove was the claim it had alleged - whether the check was forged. It cannot be required as well to prove that it was not negligent, because the legal presumption remains that ordinary care was employed.
Thus, it was incumbent upon FEBTC, in defense, to prove the negative fact that Samsung Construction was negligent. While the payee, as in this case, may not have the personal knowledge as to the standard procedures observed by the drawer, it well has the means of disputing the presumption of regularity. Proving a negative fact may be "a difficult office,"59 but necessarily so, as it seeks to overcome a presumption in law. FEBTC was unable to dispute the presumption of ordinary care exercised by Samsung Construction, hence we cannot agree with the Court of Appeals' finding of negligence.
The assailed Decision replicated the extensive efforts which FEBTC devoted to establish that there was no negligence on the part of the bank in its acceptance and payment of the forged check. However, the degree of diligence exercised by the bank would be irrelevant if the drawer is not precluded from setting up the defense of forgery under Section 23 by his own negligence. The rule of equity enunciated in PNB v. National City Bank of New York, 60 as relied upon by the Court of Appeals, deserves careful examination.
Quite palpably, the general rule remains that the drawee who has paid upon the forged signature bears the loss. The exception to this rule arises only when negligence can be traced on the part of the drawer whose signature was forged, and the need arises to weigh the comparative negligence between the drawer and the drawee to determine who should bear the burden of loss. The Court finds no basis to conclude that Samsung Construction was negligent in the safekeeping of its checks. For one, the settled rule is that the mere fact that the depositor leaves his check book lying around does not constitute such negligence as will free the bank from liability to him, where a clerk of the depositor or other persons, taking advantage of the opportunity, abstract some of the check blanks, forges the depositor's signature and collect on the checks from the bank.62 And for another, in point of fact Samsung Construction was not negligent at all since it reported the forgery almost immediately upon discovery.63
It is also worth noting that the forged signatures in PNB v. National City Bank of New York were not of the drawer, but of indorsers. The same circumstance attends PNB v. Court of Appeals, 64 which was also cited by the Court of Appeals. It is accepted that a forged signature of the drawer differs in treatment than a forged signature of the indorser.
The general rule imputing liability on the drawee who paid out on the forgery holds in this case.
Since FEBTC puts into issue the degree of care it exercised before paying out on the forged check, we might as well comment on the bank's performance of its duty. It might be so that the bank complied with its own internal rules prior to paying out on the questionable check. Yet, there are several troubling circumstances that lead us to believe that the bank itself was remiss in its duty.
The fact that the check was made out in the amount of nearly one million pesos is unusual enough to require a higher degree of caution on the part of the bank. Indeed, FEBTC confirms this through its own internal procedures. Checks below twenty-five thousand pesos require only the approval of the teller; those between twenty-five thousand to one hundred thousand pesos necessitate the approval of one bank officer; and should the amount exceed one hundred thousand pesos, the concurrence of two bank officers is required.67
In this case, not only did the amount in the check nearly total one million pesos, it was also payable to cash. That latter circumstance should have aroused the suspicion of the bank, as it is not ordinary business practice for a check for such large amount to be made payable to cash or to bearer, instead of to the order of a specified person.68 Moreover, the check was presented for payment by one Roberto Gonzaga, who was not designated as the payee of the check, and who did not carry with him any written proof that he was authorized by Samsung Construction to encash the check. Gonzaga, a stranger to FEBTC, was not even an employee of Samsung Construction.69 These circumstances are already suspicious if taken independently, much more so if they are evaluated in concurrence. Given the shadiness attending Gonzaga's presentment of the check, it was not sufficient for FEBTC to have merely complied with its internal procedures, but mandatory that all earnest efforts be undertaken to ensure the validity of the check, and of the authority of Gonzaga to collect payment therefor.
According to FEBTC Senior Assistant Cashier Gemma Velez, the bank tried, but failed, to contact Jong over the phone to verify the check.70 She added that calling the issuer or drawer of the check to verify the same was not part of the standard procedure of the bank, but an "extra effort."71 Even assuming that such personal verification is tantamount to extraordinary diligence, it cannot be denied that FEBTC still paid out the check despite the absence of any proof of verification from the drawer. Instead, the bank seems to have relied heavily on the say-so of Sempio, who was present at the bank at the time the check was presented.
FEBTC alleges that Sempio was well-known to the bank officers, as he had regularly transacted with the bank in behalf of Samsung Construction. It was even claimed that everytime FEBTC would contact Jong about problems with his account, Jong would hand the phone over to Sempio.72 However, the only proof of such allegations is the testimony of Gemma Velez, who also testified that she did not know Sempio personally,73 and had met Sempio for the first time only on the day the check was encashed.74 In fact, Velez had to inquire with the other officers of the bank as to whether Sempio was actually known to the employees of the bank.75 Obviously, Velez had no personal knowledge as to the past relationship between FEBTC and Sempio, and any averments of her to that effect should be deemed hearsay evidence. Interestingly, FEBTC did not present as a witness any other employee of their Bel-Air branch, including those who supposedly had transacted with Sempio before.
Even assuming that FEBTC had a standing habit of dealing with Sempio, acting in behalf of Samsung Construction, the irregular circumstances attending the presentment of the forged check should have put the bank on the highest degree of alert. The Court recently emphasized that the highest degree of care and diligence is required of banks.
Given the circumstances, extraordinary diligence dictates that FEBTC should have ascertained from Jong personally that the signature in the questionable check was his.
Still, even if the bank performed with utmost diligence, the drawer whose signature was forged may still recover from the bank as long as he or she is not precluded from setting up the defense of forgery. After all, Section 23 of the Negotiable Instruments Law plainly states that no right to enforce the payment of a check can arise out of a forged signature. Since the drawer, Samsung Construction, is not precluded by negligence from setting up the forgery, the general rule should apply. Consequently, if a bank pays a forged check, it must be considered as paying out of its funds and cannot charge the amount so paid to the account of the depositor.77 A bank is liable, irrespective of its good faith, in paying a forged check.78
WHEREFORE, the Petition is GRANTED. The Decision of the Court of Appeals dated 28 November 1996 is REVERSED, and the Decision of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 9, dated 25 April 1994 is REINSTATED. Costs against respondent.
Puno, (Chairman), Austria-Martinez, Callejo, Sr., and Chico-Nazario, JJ., concur.
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