THE fall of a dump truck into a ravine last Friday morning (July 19), resulting in the death of seven schoolchildren aged 10 to 12 and two adults and the injury of 16 others, promptly raised the question: Was the municipal government of Boljoon, Cebu that owns the mini dump truck and employs its driver liable for civil damages?
The driver, one Danilo Mendez Niere, owned up his liability although he insisted he was not drunk or high and the malfunction of brakes was the cause of his loss of control over the vehicle. Police will charge him with multiple deaths and injuries through reckless imprudence. It is up to the prosecutor and the court to decide whether he was criminally negligent.
Apparently though, the driver, a wage earner, doesn’t have the money to indemnify the relatives of the victims, mostly pupils of two elementary schools in Boljoon’s mountain barangays, for their losses.
The town government has the assets to pay. But is it legally responsible for the deaths and injuries?
A public service
The “municipio” used the truck to ferry passengers to participate in a parade that highlighted a sports-cultural festival in Poblacion. The mayor, Merlu Derama, said teachers had requested the use of the truck. It was a public function, the same way that the LGU provides, say, an ambulance for the sick or wounded to be taken to a hospital or a bus for residents to go to a field trip or excursion.
The lawsuit may not be based on contract of carriage, the obligation to take the passenger safely to his destination, but on the LGU’s duty to provide services, which in turn carries the duty to keep beneficiary residents from harm.
A resident who fell into an open manhole was awarded damages from his city for the government’s failure to replace the missing manhole. The court said it was the city’s obligation to keep its facilities and equipment safe.
Recognized by governor
In the same manner, since it allowed the use of its truck, Boljoon should have seen to it that it was roadworthy and manned by a competent and careful driver. The claim of brakes failure suggested that the vehicle was not regularly checked.
As employer of the driver, the LGU opens itself liable for the defect.
For years, Mayor Derama said, Boljoon has been using its vehicle and driver to take the participants to a public function from their villages to the town “poblacion.” By practice, it has become part of the LGU’s service, which carries with it the obligation to keep its recipients safe and protect them from harm. Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia’s order to review the policy on providing transport to residents required to take part in a public function recognizes that duty of local governments.
Barangay folk, however, are not litigious by nature. Re-enforcing the habit is that town and Capitol officials have been attending to the needs of families of those who died and those who were hospitalized. If the LGU can afford it, they may grant more cash aid in lieu of compensation exacted by court action.
Vehicle fatalities are mostly caused by people. No such thing as killer car or killer truck. Even “mechanical failures” are often not caused by the machine but by the driver who uses, or the mechanic who maintains, the vehicle.