Employees' liability for air and sea disasters

DIRECT FROM THE LABOR FRONT - Atty Josephus B Jimenez - The Freeman

With almost two months having lapsed, and still without a trace of the wreckage of that Malaysian air disaster, and with almost two weeks now past that unfortunate Korean ferry disaster, questions are being asked on the liability of the airline owners and their employees, as well as the ferry boat owners and their workers respectively, relative to the loss of lives and properties suffered by the passengers. Well, we need to look into Malaysian and Korean transportation laws respectively, in order to give fair and accurate answers.

But if that airline and that ferry boat were owned by a Filipino and the disasters took place either in our territorial jurisdiction, or have commenced their voyage in the Philippines, the governing laws are: the Civil Code of the Philippines, particularly articles 1755 to 1766, as well as the various maritime laws and various laws and international conventions concerning air travel. However, the Civil Code, in general, mandates that all sea, air and land common carriers must carry all passengers safely as far as human care and foresight can provide, using the utmost diligence of very cautious persons, with due regard for all circumstances.

Therefore, ship and plane owners must make sure that their employees should exercise extraordinary diligence, and not merely the usual diligence of a good father of a family. The owners are liable for damages even if the disaster was caused by mechanical defects because the employees did not maintain the vehicle well. Whether it is a ship or a plane, or even a bus or a train the owners must answer for the negligence of their workers. In a contract of carriage, when passengers pay for a voyage, the owners are presumed to be at fault or negligent when passengers die, are injured or perished and not found, or when baggage are lost or damaged.

The plane or ship owners, or bus operators are liable for damages, when passengers suffer injuries or death on account of the willful acts or negligence of other passengers or  of strangers, if the plane or ship's employees could have prevented or stopped the act or omission through the exercise of the diligence of a good father of a family. Thus, if the owners can be held liable for the negligence or fault of employees, then the latter should be liable administratively to management, if and when they failed to exercise their functions of protecting the passengers.

Under Article 1759 of the Civil code, the plane or the ship owners are liable for the death or injuries to passengers through the negligence or willful acts of the employees. This time the death or the injuries were caused by the employees not by other passengers or by strangers. If this happens, the owners are liable to pay damages to the victims. They cannot interpose the defense that their employees did not follow their instructions or exceeded the scope of their authority. The owners must pay, although they can go against their own employees by firing them for gross and habitual neglect of their duties.

If there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that the employees, like the pilot or the captain committed criminal negligence resulting to multiple homicides, then they can each be prosecuted criminally, independent of the civil liability that they may be held answerable for, by mere preponderance of evidence. That is why the captain of the Korean vessel was forthwith arrested and charged criminally. The pilots cannot be charged because they are presumably dead, and deceased people cannot be prosecuted. That was the case of the vice principal who committed suicide for liability to the parents of the innocent victims.

In the Philippines, we have experienced many maritime and air disasters. Damages in multi-million pesos were paid, either by judicial fiat or by extra-judicial settlement. Damages include actual damages for loss of lives and properties and for moral damages in the forms of mental anguish, serious anxieties, wounded feelings and sleepless nights. Many employees had been fired and their careers ruined. But the others have successfully interposed the defense of force majeure, like storms and acts of highjackers and pirates, beyond the control of the owners and the employees.

Whatever it is, lives can never be recovered. Penalties are vain and futile. Money can never replace the values of life. The pains in the hearts of the families of the Malaysian and Korean victims, as well as the thousands of Filipinos who lost their loved ones in past disasters can never be assuaged. All these money, after long and protracted litigations, are just a symbolic attempt at minimizing the extent of loss, and cushioning the impact of the tragedy. The unkindest cut of all is when courts delay the administration of justice, and the victims' families would suffer a worse fate than death, and that is injustice. Agoy, pagkapait gayod.....


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