Is the owner of the vehicle liable in an accident?

Under registered-owner rule, the registered owner of the motor vehicle involved in a vehicular accident could be held liable for the consequences. The registered-owner rule has remained good law in this jurisdiction considering its impeccable and timeless rationale, as enunciated in the 1957 ruling in Erezo, et al. v. Jepte,[1] where the Supreme Court pronounced:
Registration is required not to make said registration the operative act by which ownership in vehicles is transferred, as in land registration cases, because the administrative proceeding of registration does not bear any essential relation to the contract of sale between the parties (Chinchilla vs. Rafael and Verdaguer, 39 Phil. 888), but to permit the use and operation of the vehicle upon any public highway (section 5 [a], Act No. 3992, as amended.) 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 vehicle on the public highways, responsibility therefor can be fixed on a definite individual, the registered owner. Instances are numerous where vehicles 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 would 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." (King vs. Brenham Automobile Co., 145 S.W. 278, 279.)
The High Court has reiterated the registered-owner rule in other rulings, like in Filcar Transport Services v. Espinas,[2] to wit:
x x x It is well settled that in case of motor vehicle mishaps, the registered owner of the motor vehicle is considered as the employer of the tortfeasor-driver, and is made primarily liable for the tort committed by the latter under Article 2176, in relation with Article 2180, of the Civil Code.

In Equitable Leasing Corporation v. Suyom, we 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.

In that case, a tractor registered in the name of Equitable Leasing Corporation (Equitable) figured in an accident, killing and seriously injuring several persons. As part of its defense, Equitable claimed that the tractor was initially leased to Mr. Edwin Lim under a Lease Agreement, which agreement has been overtaken by a Deed of Sale entered into by Equitable and Ecatine Corporation (Ecatine). Equitable argued that it cannot be held liable for damages because the tractor had already been sold to Ecatine at the time of the accident and the negligent driver was not its employee but of Ecatine.

In upholding the liability of Equitable, as registered owner of the tractor, this Court said that "regardless of sales made of a motor vehicle, the registered owner is the lawful operator insofar as the public and third persons are concerned; consequently, it is directly and primarily responsible for the consequences of its operation." The Court further stated that "[i]n contemplation of law, the owner/operator of record is the employer of the driver, the actual operator and employer being considered as merely its agent." Thus, Equitable, as the registered owner of the tractor, was considered under the law on quasi delict to be the employer of the driver, Raul Tutor; Ecatine, Tutor's actual employer, was deemed merely as an agent of Equitable.

Thus, it is clear that for the purpose of holding the registered owner of the motor vehicle primarily and directly liable for damages under Article 2176, in relation with Article 2180, of the Civil Code, the existence of an employer-employee relationship, as it is understood in labor relations law, is not required. It is sufficient to establish that Filcar is the registered owner of the motor vehicle causing damage in order that it may be held vicariously liable under Article 2180 of the Civil Code. (Citations Omitted)

[1] 102 Phil. 103, 108-109 (1957).

[2] G.R. No. 174156, June 20, 2012, 674 SCRA 117, 128-130.