Home » Maritime, Ports/Terminals » SC restores raps against Sulpicio exec over ship tragedy

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The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the Manila City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 5 to reinstate the criminal case for reckless imprudence against an official of domestic carrier Sulpicio Lines, Inc. (SLI) in connection with the 2008 M/V Princess of the Stars tragedy that resulted in the death of 227 passengers.

In a 20-page decision penned by Justice Jose C. Reyes, Jr., the high court’s Third Division, in granting the consolidated petitions, reversed and set aside the March 22, 2013 decision and the January 8, 2014 resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA) that had ruled in favor of respondent Edgar S. Go, first vice president for administration and team leader of the crisis management committee of SLI, which owned Princess of the Stars.

SLI is now named Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. and operates solely as a cargo liner.

“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,” the SC held.

”It must be emphasized that there is a separate civil action instituted against SLI 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,” it continued.

In June 2008, the passenger and cargo ship M/V Princess of the Stars capsized off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province as it made its way from Manila to Cebu at the height of Typhoon Frank. Of those on board, only 32 survived, while 227 died and 592 were reported missing.

In 2009, a Department of Justice (DOJ) panel indicted Go, along with several others, before the Manila RTC for reckless imprudence. The DOJ panel found that Go had been involved in making decisions on whether a vessel should be allowed to sail, and as such he should have cancelled or discouraged the ill-fated voyage considering the severe weather at that time.

Go filed with the DOJ secretary a petition for review, and while the review was pending, then Department of Transportation and Communication Secretary Leandro Mendoza issued a resolution exculpating SLI from any negligence and holding Captain Florencio M. Marimon solely responsible for the sinking of Princess of the Stars.

Subsequently, the DOJ secretary denied the petition of Go for reconsideration, who then elevated the case to the CA. 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 PCG [Philippine Coast Guard], in view of the weather bulletin.”

The CA also found erroneous the finding of the DOJ panel that Go was criminally liable for not instructing the vessel to seek shelter or drop anchor during the storm, saying no evidence from which such power to decide matters pertaining to the vessel’s navigation could be inferred.

The high court, however, ruled it would 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 clearly supports a prima facie finding that, under Article 365 of the Revised Penal Code, reckless imprudence had been committed.

The SC found that the DOJ panel did not only rely on the affidavits of complainants but also conducted clarificatory hearings for its findings. One of the panel’s findings was that respondent Go failed, among others, to closely monitor and assess the movement of the vessel against the movement of Typhoon Frank, and did not instruct Captain Marimon to take shelter in Batangas despite information from PAGASA that the vessel would come face to face with Typhoon Frank if it continued along its regular route.

A second finding was that Go’s acts, though not malicious, were indeed voluntary, and finally, Go’s allowing the vessel to sail despite the severe weather condition demonstrated inexcusable lack of precaution on his part.

The high court further held that the 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 added that 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. In this case, it said the criminal action instituted against Go involved exclusively his criminal and civil liability arising from his criminal negligence as a responsible officer of SLI.

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