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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Earthquake liability

The series of earthquakes in Mindanao affecting particularly the Davao-Cotabato area has had many people asking if the developers or contractors of damaged building are liable for the damages, injuries, or even deaths caused by earthquakes. Thus, I thought it appropriate to write about it.

Under Article 1723 of the Civil Code the engineer or architect who drew up the plans and specification for a building is liable for damages if the building should collapse within fifteen (15) years from its construction due to defects in such plans or in the ground. The contractor is likewise liable if the collapse is due to defects in the construction or the materials used or due to any violation of the terms of the contract.

On the other hand, Article 1174 of the Civil Code essentially says that unless otherwise specifically provided by law or stipulation in a contract or if the nature of the obligation requires the assumption of the risk, generally, no person can be responsible for damages caused by fortuitous events.

Earthquakes, by their very nature are fortuitous events, or considered acts of God. While foreseeable, or expected, earthquakes are unavoidable because you cannot stop an earthquake from happening.

For example, an insurance company that sells earthquake insurance cannot escape liability when an earthquake caused damages because it is specifically the risk assumed in the stipulations in the insurance contract.

If none of the stated exceptions apply, does this mean that no one is liable for damages caused by an earthquake? What if the developer, contractor or engineer used substandard materials in constructing the damaged or collapsed building? What if the building design itself was faulty? Will they get away scot-free just because an earthquake is an act of God?

One of the best leading case on earthquake damage and the issue of liability is an old one, the case of Nakpil & Sons v. Court of Appeals (G.R. No. L-47851, October 3, 1986) involving the partial collapse of a building when an unusually strong earthquake hit Manila in 1968. This case has been cited and quoted by the Supreme Court in similar or related cases that happened thereafter.

In that case, there was a finding that there were defects and deficiencies in the design, plans and specifications prepared by the engineer and the contractor was found to have made substantial deviations from the plans and specifications, and to have failed to observe the requisite workmanship in the construction as well as to exercise the requisite degree of supervision.

In holding both the contracting and the engineering  companies solidarily liable, the Supreme Court emphasized the principle that “The principle embodied in the act of God doctrine strictly requires that the act must be one occasioned exclusively by the violence of nature and all human agencies are to be excluded from creating or entering into the cause of the mischief. When the effect, the cause of which is to be considered, is found to be in part the result of the participation of man, whether it be from active intervention or neglect, or failure to act, the whole occurrence is thereby humanized, as it were, and removed from the rules applicable to the acts of God”

Stated simply, when an act of God, such as an earthquake, coincides with the negligence of man, those whose negligence caused or aggravated the damage WILL STILL BE LIABLE for whatever damages, injuries, or deaths caused the fortuitous event.

Applying this to the damages, injuries, or worse caused by the recent string of earthquakes here in our part of the world, if the damage, partial or total collapse of the buildings happened with absolutely NO FAULT OR NEGLIGENCE on the part of the owners contractors, engineers or architects, they can escape liability.

However, if there is a showing that they was any kind of negligence or misfeasance on their part that caused or aggravated the damages, etc, caused by the earthquakes, they will be FULLY LIABLE for all the damages, injuries or deaths caused.

In addition, the persons or families who suffered by reason of the damage, partial, or total collapse of any kind of structure should also go through their contracts with the developers, engineers and/or contractors, preferably with the help of a lawyer, to examine the extent of possible liability under the specific terms and conditions therein which constitute the law as between the parties.

In ending, let us all hope and pray that the earthquakes that have already happened are the worst of it and that we will be spared from even stronger calamities.

As it is, I have great trust that the resiliency of the indomitable Filipino spirit will surely get us Mindanaoans through this difficult time.


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