June 2014 | Registered owner, NOT actual owner, liable for driver's negligence, SC rules

In the case at bar, who is deemed as Mendoza’s employer? Is it Enriquez, the actual owner of the bus or Lim, the registered owner of the bus? (G.R. No. 160110; June 18, 2014) Here, the owner, the registered owner and the driver are three different people. In case of accident due to the driver's negligence, according to the Court, it is the registered owner, not the actual owner of the motor vehicle, should be held vicariously liable.

In Filcar Transport Services v. Espinas, [the Supreme Court] held that the registered owner is deemed the employer of the negligent driver, and is thus vicariously liable under Article 2176, in relation to Article 2180, of the Civil Code. Citing Equitable Leasing Corporation v. Suyom, the Court ruled that in so far as third persons are concerned, the registered owner of the motor vehicle is the employer of the negligent driver, and the actual employer is considered merely as an agent of such owner. Thus, whether there is an employer-employee relationship between the registered owner and the driver is irrelevant in determining the liability of the registered owner who the law holds primarily and directly responsible for any accident, injury or death caused by the operation of the vehicle in the streets and highways.

As early as Erezo v. Jepte, the Court, speaking through Justice Alejo Labrador summarized the justification for holding the registered owner directly liable, to wit:

x x x The main aim of motor vehicle registration is to identify the owner so that if any accident happens, or that any damage or injury is caused by the vehicles on the public highways, responsibility therefore can be fixed on a definite individual, the registered owner. Instances are numerous where vehicle running on public highways caused accidents or injuries to pedestrians or other vehicles without positive identification of the owner or drivers, or with very scant means of identification. It is to forestall these circumstances, so inconvenient or prejudicial to the public, that the motor vehicle registration is primarily ordained, in the interest of the determination of persons responsible for damages or injuries caused on public highways.

"One of the principal purposes of motor vehicles legislation is identification of the vehicle and of the operator, in case of accident; and another is that the knowledge that means of detection are always available may act as a deterrent from lax observance of the law and of the rules of conservative and safe operation. Whatever purpose there may be in these statutes, it is subordinate at the last to the primary purpose of rendering it certain that the violator of the law or of the rules of safety shall not escape because of lack of means to discover him." The purpose of the statute is thwarted, and the displayed number becomes a "snare and delusion," if courts will entertain such defenses as that put forward by appellee in this case. No responsible person or corporation could be held liable for the most outrageous acts of negligence, if they should be allowed to place a "middleman" between them and the public, and escape liability by the manner in which they recompense their servants.
Generally, when an injury is caused by the negligence of a servant or employee, there instantly arises a presumption of law that there was negligence on the part of the master or employer either in the selection of the servant or employee (culpa in eligiendo) or in the supervision over him after the selection (culpa vigilando), or both. The presumption is juris tantum and not juris et de jure; consequently, it may be rebutted. Accordingly, the general rule is that if the employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that in the selection and supervision of his employee he has exercised the care and diligence of a good father of a family, the presumption is overcome and he is relieved of liability. However, with the enactment of the motor vehicle registration law, the defenses available under Article 2180 of the Civil Code - that the employee acts beyond the scope of his assigned task or that it exercised the due diligence of a good father of a family to prevent damage – are no longer available to the registered owner of the motor vehicle, because the motor vehicle registration law, to a certain extent, modified Article 2180.

As such, there can be no other conclusion but to hold Lim vicariously liable with Mendoza.

This does not mean, however, that Lim is left without any recourse against Enriquez and Mendoza. Under the civil law principle of unjust enrichment, the registered owner of the motor vehicle has a right to be indemnified by the actual employer of the driver; and under Article 2181 of the Civil Code, whoever pays for the damage caused by his dependents or employees may recover from the latter what he has paid or delivered in satisfaction of the claim. (G.R. No. 160110; June 18, 2014)