G.R. No. 120553 June 17, 1997
PHILTRANCO SERVICE ENTERPRISES, INC. and ROGACIONES MANILHIG, Petitioner, v. COURT OF APPEALS and HEIRS OF THE LATE RAMON ACUESTA, Respondents.
DAVIDE, JR., J.:
The petitioners interposed this appeal by way of a petition for review under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court from the 31 January 1995 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 41140 1 affirming the 22 January 1993 2 Decision of Branch 31 of the Regional Trial Court, Calbayog City, in Civil Case No. 373, which ordered the petitioners to pay the private respondents damages as a result of a vehicular accident.
Civil Case No. 373 was an action against herein petitioners for damages instituted by the heirs of Ramon A. Acuesta, namely, Gregorio O. Acuesta; Julio O. Acuesta; Ramon O. Acuesta, Jr.; Baltazar O. Acuesta; Rufino O. Acuesta; Maximo O. Acuesta; Neri O. Acuesta; Iluminada O. Acuesta; Rosario Acuesta-Sanz; and Pamfilo O. Acuesta. Atty. Julio O. Acuesta also appeared as counsel for the plaintiffs (herein private respondents). 3 The private respondents alleged that the petitioners were guilty of gross negligence, recklessness, violation of traffic rules and regulations, abandonment of victim, and attempt to escape from a crime.
To support their allegations, the private respondents presented eight witnesses. On 10 February 1992, after the cross-examination of the last witness, the private respondents' counsel made a reservation to present a ninth witness. The case was then set for continuation of the trial on 30 and 31 March 1992. Because of the non-appearance of the petitioners' counsel, the 30 March 1992 hearing was cancelled. The next day, private respondents' counsel manifested that he would no longer present the ninth witness. He thereafter made an oral offer of evidence and rested the case. The trial court summarized private respondents' evidence in this wise:
For their part, the petitioners filed an Answer 5 wherein they alleged that petitioner Philtranco exercised the diligence of a good father of a family in the selection and supervision of its employees, including petitioner Manilhig who had excellent record as a driver and had undergone months of rigid training before he was hired. Petitioner Manilhig had always been a prudent professional driver, religiously observing traffic rules and regulations. In driving Philtranco's buses, he exercised the diligence of a very cautious person.
As might be expected, the petitioners had a different version of the incident. They alleged that in the morning of 24 March 1990, Manilhig, in preparation for his trip back to Pasay City, warmed up the engine of the bus and made a few rounds within the city proper of Calbayog. While the bus was slowly and moderately cruising along Gomez Street, the victim, who was biking towards the same direction as the bus, suddenly overtook two tricycles and swerved left to the center of the road. The swerving was abrupt and so sudden that even as Manilhig applied the brakes and blew the bus horn, the victim was bumped from behind and run over by the bus. It was neither willful nor deliberate on Manilhig's part to proceed with the trip after his bus bumped the victim, the truth being that when he looked at his rear-view window, he saw people crowding around the victim, with others running after his bus. Fearing that he might be mobbed, he moved away from the scene of the accident and intended to report the incident to the police. After a man boarded his bus and introduced himself as a policeman, Manilhig gave himself up to the custody of the police and reported the accident in question.
The petitioners further claimed that it was the negligence of the victim in overtaking two tricycles, without taking precautions such as seeing first that the road was clear, which caused the death of the victim. The latter did not even give any signal of his intention to overtake. The petitioners then counterclaimed for P50,000 as and for attorney's fees; P1 million as moral damages; and P50,000 for litigation expenses.
However, the petitioners were not able to present their evidence, as they were deemed to have waived that right by the failure of their counsel to appear at the scheduled hearings on 30 and 31 March 1992. The trial court then issued an Order 6 declaring the case submitted for decision. Motions for the reconsideration of the said Order were both denied.
On 22 January 1992, the trial court handed down a decision ordering the petitioners to jointly and severally pay the private respondents the following amounts:
Unsatisfied with the judgment, the petitioners appealed to the Court of Appeals imputing upon the trial court the following errors:
(1) in preventing or barring them from presenting their evidence;
(2) in finding that petitioner Manilhig was at fault;
(3) in not finding that Ramon was the one at fault and his own fault caused, or at least contributed to, his unfortunate accident;
(4) in awarding damages to the private respondents; and
(5) in finding that petitioner Philtranco was solidarily liable with Manilhig for damages. 8
In its decision of 31 January 1995, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court. It held that the petitioners were not denied due process, as they were given an opportunity to present their defense. The records show that they were notified of the assignment of the case for 30 and 31 March 1992. Yet, their counsel did not appear on the said dates. Neither did he file a motion for postponement of the hearings, nor did he appeal from the denial of the motions for reconsideration of the 31 March 1992 Order of the trial court. The petitioners have thereby waived their right to present evidence. Their expectation that they would have to object yet to a formal offer of evidence by the private respondents was "misplaced," for it was within the sound discretion of the court to allow oral offer of evidence.
As to the second and third assigned errors, the respondent court disposed as follows:
The respondent court sustained the awards of moral and exemplary damages and of attorney's fees, for they are warranted under Articles 2206, 2231, and 2208(1), respectively, of the Civil Code. Anent the solidary liability of petitioner Philtranco, the same finds support in Articles 2180 and 2194 of the said Code. The defense that Philtranco exercised the diligence of a good father of a family in the selection and supervision of its employees crumbles in the face of the gross negligence of its driver, which caused the untimely death of the victim.
Their motion for reconsideration having been denied, the petitioners came to us claiming that the Court of Appeals gravely erred
We resolved to give due course to the petition and required the parties to submit their respective memoranda after due consideration of the allegations, issues, and arguments adduced in the petition, the comment thereon by the private respondents, and the reply to the comment filed by the petitioners. The petitioners filed their memorandum in due time; while the private respondents filed theirs only on 3 January 1997, after their counsel was fined in the amount of P1,000 for failure to submit the required memorandum.
The first imputed error is without merit. The petitioners and their counsel, Atty. Jose Buban, were duly notified in open court of the order of the trial court of 10 February 1992 setting the case for hearing on 30 and 31 March 1992. 9 On both dates neither the petitioners nor their counsel appeared. In his motion for reconsideration, 10 Atty. Buban gave the following reasons for his failure to appear on the said hearings:
In its order of 26 May 1992, the trial court denied the motion, finding it to be "devoid of meritorious basis," as Atty. Buban could have filed a motion for postponement. 12 Atty. Buban then filed a motion to reconsider 13 the order of denial, which was likewise denied by the trial court in its order of 12 August 1992. 14 Nothing more was done by the petitioners after receipt of the order of 12 August 1992. A perusal of the first and second motions for reconsideration discloses absence of any claim that the petitioners have meritorious defenses. Clearly, therefore, the trial court committed no error in declaring the case submitted for decision on the basis of private respondent's evidence.
The second imputed error is without merit either.
Civil Case No. 373 is an action for damages based on quasi-delict 15 under Article 2176 and 2180 of the Civil Code against petitioner Manilhig and his employer, petitioner Philtranco, respectively. These articles pertinently provide:
We have consistently held that the liability of the registered owner of a public service vehicle, like petitioner Philtranco, 16 for damages arising from the tortious acts of the driver is primary, direct, and joint and several or solidary with the driver. 17 As to solidarity, Article 2194 expressly provides:
Since the employer's liability is primary, direct and solidary, its only recourse if the judgment for damages is satisfied by it is to recover what it has paid from its employee who committed the fault or negligence which gave rise to the action based on quasi-delict. Article 2181 of the Civil Code provides:
There is, however, merit in the third imputed error.
The trial court erroneously fixed the "death indemnity" at P200,000. The private respondents defended the award in their Opposition to the Motion for Reconsideration by saying that "[i]n the case of Philippine Airlines, Inc. v. Court of Appeals, 185 SCRA 110, our Supreme Court held that the award of damages for death is computed on the basis of the life expectancy of the deceased." In that case, the "death indemnity" was computed by multiplying the victim's gross annual income by his life expectancy, less his yearly living expenses. Clearly then, the "death indemnity" referred to was the additional indemnity for the loss of earning capacity mentioned in Article 2206(1) of the Civil Code, and not the basic indemnity for death mentioned in the first paragraph thereof. This article provides as follows:
We concur with petitioners' view that the trial court intended the award of "P200,000.00 as death indemnity" not as compensation for loss of earning capacity. Even if the trial court intended the award as indemnity for loss of earning capacity, the same must be struck out for lack of basis. There is no evidence on the victim's earning capacity and life expectancy.
Only indemnity for death under the opening paragraph of Article 2206 is due, the amount of which has been fixed by current jurisprudence at P50,000. 18
The award of P1 million for moral damages to the heirs of Ramon Acuesta has no sufficient basis and is excessive and unreasonable. This was based solely on the testimony of one of the heirs, Atty. Julio Acuesta, contained in his "Direct Testimony . . . As Plaintiff, conducted by Himself," 19 to wit:
Since the other heirs of the deceased did not take the witness stand, the trial court had no basis for its award of moral damages to those who did not testify thereon.
Moral damages are emphatically not intended to enrich a plaintiff at the expense of the defendant. They are awarded only to allow the former to obtain means, diversion, or amusements that will serve to alleviate the moral suffering he has undergone due to the defendant's culpable action and must, perforce, be proportional to the suffering inflicted. 20 In light of the circumstances in this case, an award of P50,000 for moral damages is in order.
The award of P500,000 for exemplary damages is also excessive. In quasi-delicts, exemplary damages may be awarded if the party at fault acted with gross negligence. 21 The Court of Appeals found that there was gross negligence on the part of petitioner Manilhig. 22 Under Article 2229 of the Civil Code, exemplary damages are imposed by way of example or correction for the public good, in addition to the moral, temperate, liquidated, or compensatory damages. Considering its purpose, it must be fair and reasonable in every case and should not be awarded to unjustly enrich a prevailing party. In the instant case, an award of P50,000 for the purpose would be adequate, fair, and reasonable.
Finally, the award of P50,000 for attorney's fees must be reduced. The general rule is that attorney's fees cannot be recovered as part of damages because of the policy that no premium should be placed on the right to
The petitioners did not contest the award for actual damages fixed by the trial court. Hence, such award shall stand.
IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the petition is hereby partly granted and the challenged decision of CA-G.R. CV No. 41140 is AFFIRMED, subject to modifications as to the damages awarded, which are reduced as follows:
No pronouncements as to costs in this instance.
Narvasa, C.J., Melo and Panganiban, JJ., concur.
Francisco, J., is on leave.
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