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Why is DOTC so soft on Sulpicio?

(Article published in the Jan 13, 2010 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

On 28 August 2009, Secretary Leandro Mendoza of the Department of Transportation and Communications issued his Resolution of the appeal filed by Sulpicio Lines, Inc. The shipping company’s appeal assailed the decision dated 26 August 2008 of the Commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard as well as the Marine Accident Investigation Report dated 18 August 2008 issued by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI).  The Resolution, decision and report all deal with the capsizing of the vessel M/V “Princess of the Stars”, owned by Sulpicio Lines, Inc., on 21 June 2008.

In no uncertain terms, the Resolution declared “that from all the evidence on hand as evaluated, assessed and considered it can be stated that the capsizing and demise of the M/V ‘Princess of the Stars’ was not entirely and completely attributable to a fortuitous event (Typhoon Frank)” and “that the proximate cause of the tragic encounter with Typhoon Frank and eventual capsizing of the M/V “Princess of the Stars” is mainly attributable to HUMAN ERROR on the part of its Master…who with erroneous judgment and lack of sufficient foresight took a calculated option of maintaining his regular course while the vessel was already underway and solely under his authority and command.”

With respect to Sulpicio Lines, Inc., owner of the M/V “Princess of the Stars”, the Resolution ruled “that no convincing proof or substantial evidence was presented or on record that there was any manifest negligence that could be ascribed to the said company in the operation of the vessel before and during the tragic event that occurred and which befell the M/V “Princess of the Stars.”
 










     

Despite this “no proof of manifest negligence” finding in favor of Sulpicio Lines, Inc., the good secretary admitted, in the “Conclusion” portion of his Resolution, that “there was indeed a passenger and common carrier relationship between Sulpicio Lines, Inc. (S.L.I.) and the victims abroad the ill-fated vessel…”  Accordingly, he directed Sulpicio Lines, Inc. to expedite and facilitate the legal claims of the victim’s families and extend such necessary assistance as allowed and directed under the New Civil Code, Insurance Code, special laws on transportation and such other laws, rules and regulations applicable to the present case and situation even without intervention of administrative, regulatory and judicial authorities.”

Notably, the good secretary stopped short of saying that such a relationship between Sulpicio Lines, Inc, and its passengers required of the shipping company the exercise of “extraordinary diligence.”   He also gave no detailed listing of the facts that could help the victims push their claims before the relevant “administrative, regulatory and judicial authorities.”  Instead, what the good secretary directed Sulpicio Lines, Inc. to do was just “to expedite and facilitate the legal claims of the victim’s families and extend such necessary assistance…”

In contrast, the Marine Accident Investigation Report of the BMI dated 18 August 2008, was more forthright and explicit.  In its Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations, the BMI definitively found that Sulpicio Lines, Inc. failed to exercise the required “extraordinary diligence”.

That failure, said the BMI, consisted in, among other instances, (a) not apprising the Master of the potential impact of typhoon “Frank” on the M/V “Princess of the Stars”; (b) not preventing or discouraging the Master from sailing on the intended route despite the obvious severe weather on the said route; (c) not communicating with the vessel in those critical hours from midnight of 20 June to 6:00 AM the following day; and (d) not monitoring the vessel at the time that it was within the immediate vicinity of the typhoon.

Sulpicio Lines, Inc.’s lack of “extraordinary diligence” was also established according to the BMI by its failure to do ordinary housekeeping.  It did not keep on board, in violation of the requirement in its certificate of public convenience, a copy of the relevant circulars and issuances of the Marina, Coast Guard and Philippine Ports Authority.  It did not implement the relevant provisions of the International Safety Management Code, i.e. those relating to the safe operation of ships, and its Quality Safety Management System did not include a contingency plan containing standing orders to the Master in determining whether to sail or not, or to take shelter.  It also did not conduct a regular review, evaluation and analysis of its safety system. 

Finally, Sulpicio Lines, Inc. as found by the BMI failed to recognize that in fact an emergency was already in place around 9:00 in the morning of 21 June 2008.  Had it recognized the existence of an emergency, it could have at least activated at that time the company shore emergency response plan. 

These failings, as determined by the BMI were effectively set aside by the good secretary.  He, in fact, gave a Sulpicio Lines, Inc. a general absolution for its sins, if any.  The M/V “Princess of the Stars”, says he, was “by records and by technical account and assessment a seaworthy vessel, sufficiently manned, properly maintained and operated in accordance with specified and recognized maintenance and operational manuals for a vessel of such classification and compliant with the standards as specified in pertinent IMO Conventions on vessel maintenance and operations as well as locally enforced standards and is finally certified to be seaworthy by competent government authorities.” 

And the company is thus blameless, if the good secretary is to be believed.  According to him, “all necessary and required safety procedures and parameters were implemented by Sulpicio Lines, Inc. in the operation of the M/V “Princess of the Stars” in firm adherence and compliance with its Safety Manual…”

 Therefore, sole person who blew it, according to the good secretary, was the Ship Captain.  As had happened in previous cases, the ship captain is neither here nor there and nobody claims to know whether he is already dead or still alive.  That being the case, from whom shall the victims and their families exact justice? 

 If I may borrow from T.S. Elliot, is this the way, Mr. DOTC Secretary, the story of the M/V “Princess of the Star” ends? Not with a bang but with a whimper?

     

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