Monday, July 11, 2016

School Service Operators Are Common Carriers

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“Although in this jurisdiction the operator of a school bus service has been usually regarded as a private carrier, primarily because he only caters to some specific or privileged individuals, and his operation is neither open to the indefinite public nor for public use, the exact nature of the operation of a school bus service has not been finally settled. This is the occasion to lay the matter to rest.

A carrier is a person or corporation who undertakes to transport or convey goods or persons from one place to another, gratuitously or for hire. The carrier is classified either as a private/special carrier or as a common/public carrier. A private carrier is one who, without making the activity a vocation, or without holding himself or itself out to the public as ready to act for all who may desire his or its services, undertakes, by special agreement in a particular instance only, to transport goods or persons from one place to another either gratuitously or for hire. The provisions on ordinary contracts of the Civil Code govern the contract of private carriage. The diligence required of a private carrier is only ordinary, that is, the diligence of a good father of the family. In contrast, a common carrier is a person, corporation, firm or association engaged in the business of carrying or transporting passengers or goods or both, by land, water, or air, for compensation, offering such services to the public. Contracts of common carriage are governed by the provisions on common carriers of the Civil Code, the Public Service Act, and other special laws relating to transportation. A common carrier is required to observe extraordinary diligence, and is presumed to be at fault or to have acted negligently in case of the loss of the effects of passengers, or the death or injuries to passengers.”

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“As all the foregoing indicate, the true test for a common carrier is not the quantity or extent of the business actually transacted, or the number and character of the conveyances used in the activity, but whether the undertaking is a part of the activity engaged in by the carrier that he has held out to the general public as his business or occupation. If the undertaking is a single transaction, not a part of the general business or occupation engaged in, as advertised and held out to the general public, the individual or the entity rendering such service is a private, not a common, carrier. The question must be determined by the character of the business actually carried on by the carrier, not by any secret intention or mental reservation it may entertain or assert when charged with the duties and obligations that the law imposes.

Applying these considerations to the case before us, there is no question that the Pereñas as the operators of a school bus service were: (a) engaged in transporting passengers generally as a business, not just as a casual occupation; (b) undertaking to carry passengers over established roads by the method by which the business was conducted; and (c) transporting students for a fee. Despite catering to a limited clientèle, the Pereñas operated as a common carrier because they held themselves out as a ready transportation indiscriminately to the students of a particular school living within or near where they operated the service and for a fee.

The common carrier’s standard of care and vigilance as to the safety of the passengers is defined by law. Given the nature of the business and for reasons of public policy, the common carrier is bound “to observe extraordinary diligence in the vigilance over the goods and for the safety of the passengers transported by them, according to all the circumstances of each case.” Article 1755 of the Civil Code specifies that the common carrier should “carry the passengers safely as far as human care and foresight can provide, using the utmost diligence of very cautious persons, with a due regard for all the circumstances.” To successfully fend off liability in an action upon the death or injury to a passenger, the common carrier must prove his or its observance of that extraordinary diligence; otherwise, the legal presumption that he or it was at fault or acted negligently would stand. No device, whether by stipulation, posting of notices, statements on tickets, or otherwise, may dispense with or lessen the responsibility of the common carrier as defined under Article 1755 of the Civil Code.

And, secondly, the Pereñas have not presented any compelling defense or reason by which the Court might now reverse the CA’s findings on their liability. On the contrary, an examination of the records shows that the evidence fully supported the findings of the CA.

As earlier stated, the Pereñas, acting as a common carrier, were already presumed to be negligent at the time of the accident because death had occurred to their passenger. The presumption of negligence, being a presumption of law, laid the burden of evidence on their shoulders to establish that they had not been negligent. It was the law no less that required them to prove their observance of extraordinary diligence in seeing to the safe and secure carriage of the passengers to their destination. Until they did so in a credible manner, they stood to be held legally responsible for the death of Aaron and thus to be held liable for all the natural consequences of such death.

There is no question that the Pereñas did not overturn the presumption of their negligence by credible evidence. Their defense of having observed the diligence of a good father of a family in the selection and supervision of their driver was not legally sufficient. According to Article 1759 of the Civil Code, their liability as a common carrier did not cease upon proof that they exercised all the diligence of a good father of a family in the selection and supervision of their employee. This was the reason why the RTC treated this defense of the Pereñas as inappropriate in this action for breach of contract of carriage.

The Pereñas were liable for the death of Aaron despite the fact that their driver might have acted beyond the scope of his authority or even in violation of the orders of the common carrier. In this connection, the records showed their driver’s actual negligence. There was a showing, to begin with, that their driver traversed the railroad tracks at a point at which the PNR did not permit motorists going into the Makati area to cross the railroad tracks. Although that point had been used by motorists as a shortcut into the Makati area, that fact alone did not excuse their driver into taking that route. On the other hand, with his familiarity with that shortcut, their driver was fully aware of the risks to his passengers but he still disregarded the risks. Compounding his lack of care was that loud music was playing inside the air-conditioned van at the time of the accident. The loudness most probably reduced his ability to hear the warning horns of the oncoming train to allow him to correctly appreciate the lurking dangers on the railroad tracks. Also, he sought to overtake a passenger bus on the left side as both vehicles traversed the railroad tracks. In so doing, he lost his view of the train that was then coming from the opposite side of the passenger bus, leading him to miscalculate his chances of beating the bus in their race, and of getting clear of the train. As a result, the bus avoided a collision with the train but the van got slammed at its rear, causing the fatality. Lastly, he did not slow down or go to a full stop before traversing the railroad tracks despite knowing that his slackening of speed and going to a full stop were in observance of the right of way at railroad tracks as defined by the traffic laws and regulations. He thereby violated a specific traffic regulation on right of way, by virtue of which he was immediately presumed to be negligent.

The omissions of care on the part of the van driver constituted negligence, which, according to Layugan v. Intermediate Appellate Court, is “the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or the doing of something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do, or as Judge Cooley defines it, ‘(t)he failure to observe for the protection of the interests of another person, that degree of care, precaution, and vigilance which the circumstances justly demand, whereby such other person suffers injury.’”

The test by which to determine the existence of negligence in a particular case has been aptly stated in the leading case of Picart v. Smith, thuswise:

The test by which to determine the existence of negligence in a particular case may be stated as follows: Did the defendant in doing the alleged negligent act use that reasonable care and caution which an ordinarily prudent person would have used in the same situation? If not, then he is guilty of negligence. The law here in effect adopts the standard supposed to be supplied by the imaginary conduct of the discreet paterfamilias of the Roman law. The existence of negligence in a given case is not determined by reference to the personal judgment of the actor in the situation before him. The law considers what would be reckless, blameworthy, or negligent in the man of ordinary intelligence and prudence and determines liability by that.

The question as to what would constitute the conduct of a prudent man in a given situation must of course be always determined in the light of human experience and in view of the facts involved in the particular case. Abstract speculation cannot here be of much value but this much can be profitably said: Reasonable men govern their conduct by the circumstances which are before them or known to them. They are not, and are not supposed to be, omniscient of the future. Hence they can be expected to take care only when there is something before them to suggest or warn of danger. Could a prudent man, in the case under consideration, foresee harm as a result of the course actually pursued? If so, it was the duty of the actor to take precautions to guard against that harm. Reasonable foresight of harm, followed by the ignoring of the suggestion born of this prevision, is always necessary before negligence can be held to exist. Stated in these terms, the proper criterion for determining the existence of negligence in a given case is this: Conduct is said to be negligent when a prudent man in the position of the tortfeasor would have foreseen that an effect harmful to another was sufficiently probable to warrant his foregoing the conduct or guarding against its consequences. (Emphasis supplied)”

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