By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

THE SUPREME Court (SC) ordered the reinstatement of the criminal charge of reckless imprudence regarding an official of the former Sulpicio Lines, Inc. (SLI), in connection with the 2008 M/V Princess of the Stars sea tragedy which resulted in the deaths of more than 227 passengers.

In its 20-page decision dated Dec. 10, 2018, the SC third division reversed the March 22, 2013, decision and January 8, 2014, resolution of the Court of Appeals that ruled in favor of Edgar S. Go, then SLI first vice-president for administration and team leader of the Crisis Management Committee, and ordered the Manila regional trial court Branch 5 to reinstate the case against him.

The high court ruled that the Department of Justice (DoJ) did not commit grave abuse of discretion in finding probable cause to indict Mr. Go of reckless imprudence.

“The DoJ Panel, in arriving at such conclusion, did not just rely on the affidavits of the complainants and the respondents as well as their respective witnesses. It also conducted clarificatory hearings on March 13 and 20, 2009 wherein respondent…appeared and testified,” the SC said in its decision penned by Associate Justice Jose C. Reyes, Jr.

“The DoJ Panel merely acted on the belief that respondent’s acts or omissions constitute the offense of reckless imprudence,” the SC said, noting that it only determined whether the DoJ acted with grave abuse of discretion and did not act on evidence presented by petitioners.

In its resolution on June 22, 2009, the DoJ indicted Mr. Go as he was “unarguably involved” in deciding whether the vessel should be allowed to sail, as both captain Benjamin Eugenio and SLI Safety officer Ernelson Morales reported directly to him. The prosecution said that his allowing the captain and safety officer to decide among themselves “bespeaks of his failure to exercise extraordinary care and precaution.”

Mr. Go appealed the DoJ’s resolution but this was denied. He then elevated the resolution to the Court of Appeals (CA).

The CA, in its March 22, 2013 decision, said Mr. Go’s act of allowing the officers in charge of the vessel to decide on its sailing did not make him criminally liable, as it is within the captain’s authority, in coordination with the Philippine Coast Guard.

The appellate court also said it found erroneous the finding of the DoJ panel that Mr. Go is liable for not instructing the vessel to seek shelter or drop anchor due to the storm. Petitioners appealed the CA decision but were denied.

“In this case, the criminal action instituted against respondent involved exclusively the criminal and civil liability of the latter arising from his criminal negligence as responsible officer of SLI,” the SC said.

It added: “It must be emphasized that there is a separate civil action instituted against SLI based on culpa contractual incurred by it due to its failure to carry safely the passengers of Stars to their place of destination. The civil action against a shipowner for breach of contract of carriage does not preclude criminal prosecution against its employees whose negligence resulted in the death of or injuries to passengers.”

In June 2008, SLI’s passenger/cargo vessel, M/V Princess of the Stars, capsized in the waters off Sibuyan Island in Romblon during the onslaught of Typhoon Frank. The ship was bound for Cebu from Manila. Only 32 passengers survived, 227 died, and 592 were reported missing.

SLI, now Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., is no longer allowed to transport people with its 13 vessels and is limited to cargo operations, following the Maritime Industry Authority’s 2015 cancellation of its certificate of public convenience for the transport of persons.

Five of SLI’s vessels sank in the period between 1980 to 2008: Sulpicio Container I in 1980, Doña Paz in 1987, Doña Marilyn in 1988, Princess of the Orient in 1998, and Princess of the Stars in 2008.