Civil action despite accused's acquittal (Article 29, Civil Code)

When the accused in a criminal prosecution is acquitted on the ground that his guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt, a civil action for damages for the same act or omission may be instituted. Such action requires only a preponderance of evidence. Upon motion of the defendant, the court may require the plaintiff to file a bond to answer for damages in case the complaint should be found to be malicious. (Paragraph 1, Article 29, Civil Code) If in a criminal case the judgment of acquittal is based upon reasonable doubt, the court shall so declare. In the absence of any declaration to that effect, it may be inferred from the text of the decision whether or not the acquittal is due to that ground. (Paragraph 2, Article 29, Civil Code)

The law, via Article 29, allows a civil action to prosper even if the accused has been acquitted due to reasonable doubt. In other words, even if the prosecution fails to prove criminal liability beyond reasonable doubt, the private aggrieved party is not prevented from pursuing damages arising from civil liability "for the same act or omission." The obvious reason for this is the different in the quanta of evidence required in civil actions (preponderance of evidence) which is a much lower bar than that required in criminal actions (proof beyond reasonable doubt).

According to Paras, citing Article 100 of the Revised Penal Code, a person criminally liable is also civilly liable. "The two liabilities are separate and distinct from each other; the criminal aspect affects the social order; the civil, private rights." Moreover, according to the Commission that drafted the Civil Code, a criminal action is for the punishment or correction of the offender, while a civil action is for reparation of damages suffered by the aggrieved party. (Report, Code Commission, p. 45)

The parties, therefore, are different. In a criminal case, the offended party is the State through the Government representing the People of the Philippines. In a civil case, the private aggrieved party sues for indemnification or reparation. More specifically, a "civil action is one by which a party sues another for the enforcement or protection of a right, or the prevention or redress of a wrong" while a criminal action "is one by which the State prosecutes a person for an act or omission punishable by law." (Rule 1, Rules of Court)

In fact, as early as 1952, according to the Supreme Court, even if the accused gets acquitted by reason of prescription of the crime (i.e. the right of the State to push for imprisonment has expired), he is released only from criminal responsibility, not civil liability; otherwise, the victim would be prejudiced. (Sombilla and Positos v. Hodges and Mogar, G.R. No. L-4660, May 30, 1952) The Court explained: "The acquittal of Hodges in the criminal case because of prescription of the crime merely releases him from criminal responsibility and punishment. It does not validate any unlawful, fictitious, illegal or irregular transactions or acts which he has entered into or committed which according to the plaintiffs were highly prejudicial to them and deprived them of their property."

In another case, Urbano vs. Intermediate Appellate Court, G.R. No. 72964, January 7, 1988, a vehicular accident resulted in a criminal information for reckless imprudence resulting in damage to property with physical injuries. There was acquittal due to failure to prove guilty beyond reasonable doubt. A civil action for damages based on tort was filed; this action was dismissed.

The Supreme Court answered: "The well-settled doctrine is that a person, while not criminally liable, may still be civilly liable." While the guilt of the accused in a criminal prosecution must be established beyond reasonable doubt, only a preponderance of evidence is required in a civil action for damages. (Article 29, Civil Code). The judgment of acquittal extinguishes the civil liability of the accused only when it includes a declaration that the facts from which the civil liability might arise did not exist.

The reason for the provisions of Article 29 of the Civil Code, which provides that the acquittal of the accused on the ground that his guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt does not necessarily exempt him from civil liability for the same act or omission, has been explained by the Code Commission as follows:

The old rule that the acquittal of the accused in a criminal case also releases him from civil liability is one of the most serious flaws in the Philippine legal system. It has given rise to numberless instances of miscarriage of justice, where the acquittal was due to a reasonable doubt in the mind of the court as to the guilt of the accused. The reasoning followed is that inasmuch as the civil responsibility is derived from the criminal offense, when the latter is not proved, civil liability cannot be demanded.

This is one of those cases where confused thinking leads to unfortunate and deplorable consequences. Such reasoning fails to draw a clear line of demarcation between criminal liability and civil responsibility, and to determine the logical result of the distinction. The two liabilities are separate and distinct from each other. One affects the social order and the other, private rights. One is for the punishment or correction of the offender while the other is for reparation of damages suffered by the aggrieved party. The two responsibilities are so different from each other that Article 1813 of the present (Spanish) Civil Code reads thus: ‘There may be a compromise upon the civil action arising from a crime; but the public action for the imposition of the legal penalty shall not thereby be extinguished.’ It is just and proper that, for the purposes of the imprisonment of or fine upon the accused, the offense should be proved beyond reasonable doubt. But for the purpose of indemnifying the complaining party, why should the offense also be proved beyond reasonable doubt? Is not the invasion or violation of every private right to be proved only by a preponderance of evidence? Is the right of the aggrieved person any less private because the wrongful act is also punishable by the criminal law?

For these reasons, the Commission recommends the adoption of the reform under discussion. It will correct a serious defect in our law. It will close up an inexhaustible source of injustice — a cause for disillusionment on the part of the innumerable persons injured or wronged. (People vs. Ligon, G.R. No. 74041, July 29, 1987)

Criminal liability will give rise to civil liability ex delicto only if the same felonious act or omission results in damage or injury to another and is the direct and proximate cause thereof. Hence, extinction of the penal action does not carry with it the extinction of civil liability unless the extinction proceeds from a declaration in a fi nal judgment that the fact from which the civil case might arise did not exist. (Sec. 2b, Rule III, 1985 Rules of Criminal Procedure, cited in Conrado Buñag v. CA G.R. No. 101749, July 10, 1992)

In Conrado Buñag v. CA, the dismissal of the complaint for forcible abduction with rape was by mere resolution of the fiscal at the preliminary investigation stage. There is no declaration in a final judgment that the fact from which the civil case might arise did not exist. Consequently, the dismissal did not in any way affect the right of herein private respondent to institute a civil action arising from the offense because such preliminary dismissal of the penal action did not carry with it the extinction of the civil action.

In a criminal action, the State must prove its case by evidence which shows the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, while in a civil action it is sufficient for the plaintiff to sustain his cause by preponderance of evidence only. (Ocampo, et al. vs. Jenkins, et al., 14 Phil. 681, 1909) Thus, in Rillon, et al. vs. Rillon, 107 Phil. 783 (1960), it was stressed that it is not now necessary that a criminal prosecution for rape be first instituted and prosecuted to final judgment before a civil action based on said offense in favor of the offended woman can likewise be instituted and prosecuted to final judgment.