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Is the ship seaworthy?

Is the ship seaworthy?
Persida Acosta June 7, 2022

May I know the meaning of seaworthy in maritime law? May I also be enlightened as to the so-called limited liability rule? Does it apply in cases of death or injury of passengers due to the ship's unseaworthiness?


Dear Bong,

The answer to your first question is found in the provisions of Republic Act (RA) 10607, otherwise known as "The Insurance Code of the Philippines, and pertinent jurisprudence."

Section 116 of the afore-mentioned law reads:

"Section 116. A ship is seaworthy when reasonably fit to perform the service and to encounter the ordinary perils of the voyage contemplated by the parties to the policy." (Emphasis and underscoring supplied).

In line with the foregoing, the Supreme Court in the case of Caltex (Philippines), Inc. vs. Sulpicio Lines Inc. (GR131166, Sept. 30, 1999), penned by Associate Justice Bernardo Pardo, held:

"For a vessel to be seaworthy, it must be adequately equipped for the voyage and manned with a sufficient number of competent officers and crew. The failure of a common carrier to maintain in seaworthy condition the vessel involved in its contract of carriage is a clear breach of its duty prescribed in Article 1755 of the Civil Code."

As to your second query regarding the limited liability rule, the provisions of the Code of Commerce is elucidating. The limited liability rule indicates the real and hypothecary doctrine in maritime law where the ship owner or ship agent's liability is held as merely co-extensive with his interest in the vessel such that a total loss thereof results in its extinction. In this jurisdiction, this rule is provided in three articles of the Code of Commerce. These are:

"Art. 587. The ship agent shall also be civilly liable for the indemnities in favor of third persons which may arise from the conduct of the captain in the care of the goods which he loaded on the vessel; but he may exempt himself therefrom by abandoning the vessel with all her equipment and the freight it may have earned during the voyage.

"Art. 590. The co-owners of the vessel shall be civilly liable in the proportion of their interests in the common fund for the results of the acts of the captain referred to in Art. 587.

"Each co-owner may exempt himself from this liability by the abandonment, before a notary, of the part of the vessel belonging to him.

"Art. 837. The civil liability incurred by ship owners in the case prescribed in this section, shall be understood as limited to the value of the vessel with all its appurtenances and freightage served during the voyage. [See Dela Torre vs. Court of Appeals, GR 160088, July 13, 2011, Ponente: Associate Justice Jose Mendoza]" (Emphasis and underscoring supplied).

Be that as it may, the Supreme Court in the case of PhilAmGen Insurance Company Inc. vs. Court of Appeals (GR 116940, June 11, 1997), penned by Associate Justice Josue Bellosillo, clarified that the limited liability rule does not apply when there is fault or negligence on the part of the ship owner such as when the ship is not sea worthy, viz:

"Simply put, the ship agent is liable for the negligent acts of the captain in the care of goods loaded on the vessel. This liability however can be limited through abandonment of the vessel, its equipment and freightage as provided in Art. 587. Nonetheless, there are exceptional circumstances wherein the ship agent could still be held answerable despite the abandonment, as where the loss or injury was due to the fault of the ship owner and the captain. The international rule is to the effect that the right of abandonment of vessels, as a legal limitation of a ship owner's liability, does not apply to cases where the injury or average was occasioned by the ship owner's own fault. It must be stressed at this point that Art. 587 speaks only of situations where the fault or negligence is committed solely by the captain. Where the ship owner is likewise to be blamed, Art. 587 will not apply, and such situation will be covered by the provisions of the Civil Code on common carrier." (Emphasis and underscoring supplied).

We hope that we were able to answer your queries.

Editor's note: Dear PAO is a daily column of the Public Attorney's Office. Questions for Chief Acosta m zay be sent to [email protected]