Sulpicio Lines pay PHP6.2 million for death of man in 1998 ferry disaster

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sulpicio Lines, a ferry company in the Philippines, have been ordered to pay PH₱6.24 million over the death of a man on board MV Princess of the Orient, which sank in stormy weather off Batangas in 1998. Ernesto Unabia was one of seventy confirmed fatalities in the disaster, which left eighty more missing.

Unabia was a 37-year-old seaman who worked on international vessels, and earned a ₱120,000 salary. According to widow Verna Unabia, who filed the case with her three children, he was going to work on for thirteen more years and then retire. Unabia's case is the first to be concluded, although most victims settled with Sulpicio without claims being filed.

Although Sulpicio lost their appeal several weeks ago, reporters have only today received access to documentation concerning the case.

Under Philippines law, employers are responsible for their employees actions. However, in Pestaño vs. Sumayang the Supreme court ruled that if it could be proved an employer had taken appropriate diligence when selecting employers then they could not be held responsible.

It was viewed that Sulpicio was responsible as they failed to remove captain Esrum Mahilum from the vessel despite a number of incidents involving the ferry while he was in command of it. Princess of the Orient had struck the bottom of Manila's North Harbour, sideswiped a container ship and suffered a crippling engine fire while berthed at North Harbour, being towed first to Cebu and ultimately Singapore for repairs.

Despite these serious incidents while the ship was under Mahilum's care, however, he was not removed from captaincy or even disciplined. A Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) investigation into the ultimate sinking of the Princess of the Orient would later say that Sulpicio did not have enough initiative to take action against him. The court ruled this made them responsible for his actions.

On September 18, 1998, the day of the sinking, Captain Mahilum was warned before starting out that severe weather was approaching. He wrongly calculated that the storm was safely distanced and left port regardless, running into the storm two hours later. Princess of the Orient began listing to the left and a distress call was sent, but she sank before help arrived. The BMI's report blamed the disaster on the captain making "erroneous maneuvers of the vessel before it sank." He remains missing to this day.

After the court ruled that this made Sulpicio liable to pay civil damages an appeal was filed, in which Sulpicio said that the captain "valiantly tried to save his ship up to the bitter end. He heroically went down with his ship." Although he failed to properly supervise the abandon ship order he gave, he was last seen helping passengers to board life rafts. Sulpicio further alleged that careful analysis of the BMI report showed he did not directly cause the disaster.

The court rejected the appeal, with judge Estella Alma Singco saying that while the failure to remove the captain wasn't the direct cause, "such failure doubtless contributed materially to the loss of life." Sulpicio were ordered to pay P6.240 million in lost earnings, P100,000 moral damages, P50,000 indemnity - which Sulpicio had already offered to all the families of the deceased - and P50,000 in pursuer's litigation costs.


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