The lingering burning sensation
May-Ari Inc. is the owner of MAI Building. It leased to Nasunugan Corp. (NC) several units on the second and third floors of the building.
At the break of dawn, fire destroyed portions of the MAI building, including units occupied by NC. The field investigation report by the arson investigator assigned to the case disclosed that the fire started in a store room occupied by NC and the cause of the fire was an overheated coffee percolator.
These findings were reiterated in the certification which the BFP City Fire Marshal issued to NC as supporting document for the latter’s insurance claim.
Citing the foregoing findings, MAI sent NC a notice to vacate the leased premises to make way for repairs, and to pay reparation estimated at P1.5 million.
NC vacated the leased premises, but did not act on the demand for reparation.
MAI wrote NC another letter, reiterating its claim for reparation, this time estimated by professionals to be no less than P2 million. It also clarified that, as the leased units on the second floor were not affected by the fire, NC had no reason to vacate the same; hence, its lease on said units is deemed still subsisting, along with its obligation to pay for the rent.
In reply, NC explained that it could no longer re-occupy the units on the second floor of the building for it had already moved to a new location and entered into a binding contract with a new lessor. NC also disclaimed liability for reparation, pointing out that the fire was a fortuitous event for which it could not be held responsible.
Q: Who is legally presumed responsible for the deterioration or loss of the thing leased?
A: The lessee. Article 1667 of the Civil Code provides that “(t)he lessee is responsible for the deterioration or loss of the thing leased, unless he proves that it took place without his fault. This burden of proof on the lessee does not apply when the destruction is due to earthquake, flood, storm or other natural calamity.”
The above said provision clearly creates a presumption that the lessee is liable for the deterioration or loss of a thing leased.
Q: How does one overcome such presumption?
A: To overcome such legal presumption, the lessee must prove that the deterioration or loss was due to a fortuitous event which took place without his fault or negligence.
Q: What is a fortuitous event?
A: Article 1174 of the Civil Code defines a fortuitous event as that which could not be foreseen, or which, though foreseen, was inevitable.
Whether an act of God or an act of man, to constitute a fortuitous event, it must be shown that: a) the cause of the unforeseen and unexpected occurrence or of the failure of the obligor to comply with its obligations was independent of human will; b) it was impossible to foresee the event or, if it could have been foreseen, to avoid it; c) the occurrence rendered it impossible for the obligor to fulfill its obligations in a normal manner; and d) said obligor was free from any participation in the aggravation of the injury or loss.
Q: What is the effect if the negligence or fault of obligor coincided with the occurrence of the fortuitous event?
A: If the negligence or fault of the obligor coincided with the occurrence of the fortuitous event, and caused the loss or damage or the aggravation thereof, the fortuitous event cannot shield the obligor from liability for his negligence.
Q: Is NC responsible for the damage sustained by the leased premises?
A: Yes, the proximate cause of the fire was the fault and negligence of NC in using a coffee percolator in the office stockroom on the third floor of the building and in allowing the electrical device to overheat.
Furthermore, NC is stopped from denying liability since it used the Fire Marshal’s certification—which states that the cause of the fire was an overheated coffee percolator—in claiming insurance for its office equipment which were destroyed by the fire.”
Q: What is the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor?
A: Res ipsa loquitur means the thing speaks for itself. It is the rule that the fact of the occurrence of an injury, taken with the surrounding circumstances, may permit an inference or raise a presumption of negligence, or make out a plaintiff’s prima facie case, and present a question of fact for defendant to meet with an explanation.
Q: What are the requisites for the applicability of the doctrine?
A: The requisites for the applicability of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur are: (1) the occurrence of an injury; (2) the thing which caused the injury was under the control and management of the defendant; (3) the occurrence was such that in the ordinary course of things, would not have happened if those who had control or management used proper care; and (4) the absence of explanation by the defendant. Of the foregoing requisites, the most instrumental is the control and management of the thing which caused the injury.
Q: Is the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor applicable in this case?
A: Yes. The fire that damaged the building was not a spontaneous natural occurrence but the outcome of a human act or omission. It originated in the store room which NC had possession and control of.
MAI had no hand in the incident. Hence, the convergence of these facts and circumstances speaks for itself: NC alone having knowledge of the cause of the fire or the best opportunity to ascertain it, and MAI having no means to find out for itself, it is sufficient for the latter to merely allege that the cause of the fire was the negligence of the NC and to rely on the occurrence of the fire as proof of such negligence.
Q: What is the liability of NC in terms of pesos and centavos?
A: NC is liable to pay rehabilitation costs, unpaid rentals for the units they leased and temperate damages.
Q: What is temperate or moderate damages?
A: Temperate damages may be availed when some pecuniary loss has been suffered but its amount cannot, from the nature of the case, be proved with certainty. The amount thereof is usually left to the discretion of the courts but the same should be reasonable, bearing in mind that temperate damages should be more than nominal but less than compensatory.
Without a doubt, MAI suffered some form of pecuniary loss for the impairment of the structural integrity of its building as a result of the fire. Given MAI’s inability to present proof of the exact amount of such pecuniary loss, it may only be entitled to temperate damages.
(Sources: College Assurance Plan vs. Belfranlt Development, Inc. G.R. No. 155604, November 22, 2007; Cruz vs. Agas, G.R. No. 204095, June 15, 2015)
Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis is Dean, College of Law at Lyceum of the Philippines University; Chairperson of the Philippine Association of Law Schools; and founder of Mawis Law Office
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