National Steel Corp. v. Court of Appeals

G.R. No. 112287, 12 December 1997, 283 SCRA 45

FACTS:

The MV Vlasons I is a vessel which renders tramping service and, as such, does not transport cargo or shipment for the general public. Its services are available only to specific persons who enter into a special contract of charter party with its owner. The ship is a private carrier, and it is in this capacity that its owner, Vlasons Shipping, Inc. (VSA), entered into a contract of affreightment or contract of voyage charter hire with National Steel Corporation (NSC) on 17 July 1974, whereby NSC hired VSI’s vessel, the MV ‘VLASONS I’ to make 1 voyage to load steel products at Iligan City and discharge them at North Harbor, Manila

The shipment was placed in the 3 hatches of the ship which arrived with the cargo at Pier 12, North Harbor, Manila, on 12 August 1974. The following day, when the vessel’s 3 hatches containing the shipment were opened by NSC’s agents, nearly all the skids of tinplates and hot rolled sheets were allegedly found to be wet and rusty. The cargo was discharged and unloaded by stevedores hired by the Charterer.

On 6 September 1974 NSC filed with VSI its claim for damages suffered due to the downgrading of the damaged tinplates in the amount of P941,145.18. Then on 3 October 1974, NSC formally demanded payment of said claim but VSI refused and failed to pay.
On appeal, and on 12 August 1993, the Court of Appeals modified the decision of the trial court by reducing the demurrage from P88,000.00 to P44,000.00 and deleting the award of attorneys fees and expenses of litigation. NSC and VSI filed separate motions for reconsideration. The CA denied both motions. NSC and VSI filed their respective petitions for review before the Supreme Court.

ISSUE:

Whether or not VSI contracted with NSC as a common carrier or a private carrier.

RULING:

Article 1732 of the Civil Code defines a common carrier as “persons, corporations, firms or associations engaged in the business of carrying or transporting passengers or goods or both, by land, water, or air, for compensation, offering their services to the public.” It has been held that the true test of a common carrier is the carriage of passengers or goods, provided it has space, for all who opt to avail themselves of its transportation service for a fee.

A carrier which does not qualify under the test of a common carrier is deemed a private carrier. “Generally, private carriage is undertaken by special agreement and the carrier does not hold himself out to carry goods for the general public. The most typical, although not the only form of private carriage, is the charter party, a maritime contract by which the charterer, a party other than the shipowner, obtains the use and service of all or some part of a ship for a period of time or a voyage or voyages.”Herein, VSI did not offer its services to the general public. It carried passengers or goods only for those it chose under a “special contract of charter party.” The MV Vlasons I “was not a common but a private carrier.” Consequently, the rights and obligations of VSI and NSC, including their respective liability for damage to the cargo, are determined primarily by stipulations in their contract of private carriage or charter party.

In Valenzuela Hardwood and Industrial Supply, Inc., vs. Court of Appeals and Seven Brothers Shipping Corporation, the Court ruled that “in a contract of private carriage, the parties may freely stipulate their duties and obligations which perforce would be binding on them. Unlike in a contract involving a common carrier, private carriage does not involve the general public. Hence, the stringent provisions of the Civil Code on common carriers protecting the general public cannot justifiably be applied to a ship transporting commercial goods as a private carrier. Consequently, the public policy embodied therein is not contravened by stipulations in a charter party that lessen or remove the protection given by law in contracts involving common carriers.”

From the parties’ Contract of Voyage Charter Hire, dated 17 July 1974, VSI “shall not be responsible for losses except on proven willful negligence of the officers of the vessel.” The NANYOZAI Charter Party, which was incorporated in the parties’ contract of transportation further provided that the shipowner shall not be liable for loss of or damage to the cargo arising or resulting from unseaworthiness, unless the same was caused by its lack of due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy or to ensure that the same was “properly manned, equipped and supplied,” and to “make the holds and all other parts of the vessel in which cargo was carried, fit and safe for its reception, carriage and preservation.” The NANYOZAI Charter Party also provided that “owners shall not be responsible for split, chafing and/or any damage unless caused by the negligence or default of the master or crew.”
Herein, NSC must prove that the damage to its shipment was caused by VSI’s willful negligence or failure to exercise due diligence in making MV Vlasons I seaworthy and fit for holding, carrying and safekeeping the cargo. Ineluctably, the burden of proof was placed on NSC by the parties’ agreement.
Article 361 of the Code of Commerce provides that “Merchandise shall be transported at the risk and venture of the shipper, if the contrary has not been expressly stipulated. Therefore, the damage and impairment suffered by the goods during the transportation, due to fortuitous event, force majeure, or the nature and inherent defect of the things, shall be for the account and risk of the shipper. The burden of proof of these accidents is on the carrier.”

Article 362 of the Code of Commerce provides that “The carrier, however, shall be liable for damages arising from the cause mentioned in the preceding article if proofs against him show that they occurred on account of his negligence or his omission to take the precautions usually adopted by careful persons, unless the shipper committed fraud in the bill of lading, making him to believe that the goods were of a class or quality different from what they really were.”

As the MV Vlasons I was a private carrier, the shipowner’s obligations are governed by the foregoing provisions of the Code of Commerce and not by the Civil Code which, as a general rule, places the prima facie presumption of negligence on a common carrier.

The Supreme Court denied the consolidated petitions; and affirmed the questioned Decision of the Court of Appeals with the modification that the demurrage awarded to VSI is deleted. No pronouncement as to costs.

*Case digest by Karl Bation, LLB-IV, Andres Bonifacio Law School, SY 2018-2019

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