Dissension in the Court: April 2011

The following is a summary of a recent decision promulgated by the High Court in April 2011 where one Justice felt compelled to express his dissent from the decision penned by the ponente.

1.         Negligence or No Negligence? (Carpio-Morales vs. Bersamin)

On April 13, 2011, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Ocean Builders Construction Corp. and/or Dennis Hao vs. Spouses Antonio and Anicia Cubacub.  Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales penned the majority decision.  Although the decision was rendered by the Supreme Court from the cool comforts of its Baguio City summer sanctuary, Justice Lucas Bersamin opted to turn up the heat as sole dissenter.

Ocean Builders, of which petitioner Dennis Hao was general manager, employed Bladimir Cubacub as a maintenance man.  On April 9, 1995, Bladimir fell ill to chicken pox as a result of which Hao advised him to rest for three days, which Bladimir promptly did at the company’s barracks.  Three days later, according to the ponente, Bladimir proceeded with his usual chores of manning the gate of the company premises and even cleaned company vehicles.

Apparently still not feeling well, he asked a co-worker to accompany him to his house in the province of Tarlac.  Upon being informed of this request, Hao gave Bladimir P1,000.00 and instructed Bladimir’s co-worker to instead bring Bladimir to the nearest hospital.  Thus, on April 12, 1995, Bladimir was taken to the Caybiga Community Hospital, a primary-care hospital around one kilometer away from the office of the company, and in which Bladimir was confined.

At the request and suggestion of the attending physician, Bladimir’s parents, respondent spouses Antonio and Anicia Cubacub, together with a friend, Dr. Hermes Frias, arrived at the hospital the following day and transferred Bladimir to the Quezon City General Hospital (QCGH) where he was placed in the intensive care unit.  Bladimir died the following day, April 14, 1995.

The death certificate issued by the QCGH recorded Bladimir’s immediate cause of death as cardio-respiratory arrest and the antecedent cause as pneumonia. On the other hand, the death certificate issued by Dr. Frias recorded the causes of death as cardiac arrest, multiple organ system failure, septicaemia and chicken pox.

Around four months after Bladimir’s death, his parents filed a tort action for damages before the Regional Trial Court of Tarlac alleging that Hao was guilty of negligence which resulted in the deterioration of Bladimir’s condition leading to eventual his death.

The Tarlac RTC dismissed the complaint, holding that Hao was not under any obligation to bring Bladimir to better tertiary hospitals and assuming that Bladimir died of chicken pox aggravated by pneumonia or some other complications due to lack of adequate facilities at the hospital, the same cannot be attributed to Hao.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals, reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that Hao violated Article 161 of the Labor Code by failing to bring Bladimir to a better-equipped hospital. The Court of Appeals further ruled that Hao should have foreseen that Bladimir, an adult, could suffer complications from chicken pox and, had he been brought to hospitals like St. Luke’s, Capitol Medical Center, Philippine General Hospital and the like, Bladimir could have been saved.

Seeking relief from the Supreme Court, Ocean Builders and Hao asserted that Hao exercised the diligence more than the degree of diligence the law requires and thus are not liable for damages.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Carpio-Morales noted that to successfully prosecute an action anchored on torts, the following elements must be present: (1) duty (2) breach (3) injury and proximate causation. While the Supreme Court noted that the Court of Appeals held that it was the duty of petitioners to provide adequate medical assistance to the employees under Article 161 of the Labor Code:

 ART. 161. Assistance of employer. – It shall be the duty of any employer to provide all the necessary assistance to ensure the adequate and immediate medical and dental attendance and treatment to an injured or sick employee in case of emergency.

the Implementing Rules of the Labor Code do not enlighten what the phrase “adequate and immediate” medical attendance means in relation to an “emergency.”  Accordingly, Justice Carpio-Morales stated that “it would thus appear that the determination of what it means is left to the employer, except when a full-time registered nurse or physician are available on-site as required, also under Section 157 of the Labor Code.”

In the view of the High Court, Hao’s advice for Bladimir to, as he did, take a three-day rest and to later have him brought to the nearest hospital constituted “adequate and immediate medical” attendance that he is mandated, under Article 161, to provide to a sick employee in an emergency.

Justice Carpio-Morales adds, “[c]hicken pox is self-limiting. Hao does not appear to have a medical background. He may not be thus expected to have known that Bladimir needed to be brought to a hospital with better facilities than the Caybiga Hospital, contrary to appellate court’s ruling.”

In any case, the majority held that Hao cannot be considered as the proximate cause of the death of Bladimir. “Proximate cause is that which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces injury, and without which, the result would not have occurred. An injury or damage is proximately caused by an act or failure to act, whenever it appears from the evidence in the case that the act or omission played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury or damage, and that the injury or damage was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the act or omission.”

Therefore, based on the relevant facts, the Supreme Court found Ocean Builders and Hao not to have been negligent and thus reversed the Court of Appeals.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Lucas Bersamin takes the view that the petitioners should be held liable for damages, as the Court of Appeals ruled, essentially because Bladimir “died from the complications of chicken pox after his employers forced him to continue on the job despite his affliction that, in the first place, he had contracted in the workplace from a co-employee.  To [Justice Bersamin], his death was wrongful by reason of the employers’ failure: (a) to isolate the co-worker to prevent the spread of chicken pox; (b) to provide to him the legally mandated first aid treatment; and (c) to extend adequate medical and other assistance for his affliction with chicken pox and the expected complications of the affliction (like letting him off from work in order to have complete rest).”

The dissenter cites the factual records of the case as convincingly establishing that Hao had failed to exercise the degree of care and vigilance required under the circumstances.

For one thing, Justice Bersamin notes that the petitioners had violated Article 157 of the Labor Code for not having the required medical personnel or facilities. [On this point, the majority opinion stated that there is no allegation on the number of employees or state of the company’s premises on which to reach a determination as to that applicability of Article 157 to the petitioners.]

As such, Bladimir received no first aid treatment from the time he contracted chicken pox until the day he was rushed to the community hospital. Moreover, Bladimir was not allowed to have bed rest, considering that Hao instead required him to continue on the job despite his affliction.  The dissent also points out that Bladimir was not allowed to rest in his parents’ home in Tarlac because Hao was due to leave for Hongkong for the Holy Week break. In addition, the employee barracks were unsuitable for employees with illnesses.

Concluded Justice Bersamin, “Hao’s utter lack of concern and solicitude for the welfare of Bladimir not only contravened the letter and spirit of the Labor Code but also manifested a callous disregard of Bladimir’s weakened condition.”

(Ocean Builders Construction Corp., and/or Dennis Hao vs. Spouses Antonio and Anicia Cubacub, April 13, 2011, G.R. No. 150898 See dissenting opinion here.)

(author’s note:  based on nothing more than gut feel, this author is inclined to believe that Ocean Builders—incidentally, how does one build an ocean?—and Hao were not guilty of negligence on account of the incidents that transpired after Bladimir had fallen ill. However, this author thinks there might have been a better chance for the respondents to have reaped some damages if they focused on dire conditions of the workplace that may have caused Bladimir to contract the disease in the first place, if indeed any such factual circumstances could have been established.  To some extent, this is what the dissent suggests by pointing out the decrepit state of the employee barracks.)