The cheap valuation of priceless life
A habit long practiced by our courts that causes injustice to crime victims has surfaced again in the decision rendered in the Maguindanao Massacre. I am referring to the very stingy nature of our courts in awarding damages, even when death results from a heinous crime.
In addition to convicting the guilty accused, trial court Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes ordered them to pay the heirs of the 57 victims the following damages—loss of earning capacity, actual damages, civil indemnity, moral damages and exemplary damages.
The trial court was fair in awarding loss of earning capacity and actual damages to each family by carefully computing them based on evidence. However, our sensibilities should be highly disturbed by the amounts awarded for civil indemnity, moral damages and exemplary damages.
Civil indemnity is normally awarded for a life lost to crime. Moral damages are awarded for the heirs’ emotional suffering. Exemplary damages are awarded to discourage the public from repeating the crime.
Notwithstanding the gruesome nature of the deaths in the Maguindanao Massacre, the court awarded the miserable amounts of P100,000 for civil indemnity, P100,000 for moral damages, and P100,000 for exemplary damages for each victim killed.
Judge Solis-Reyes is not entirely to be blamed, because she was only following the pronouncements of the Supreme Court which fixed these amounts in the 2013 case of People of the Philippines vs Halil Gambao et al. While the Supreme Court stated in Gambao that it was only setting the “minimum” amounts, the impression given to judges is that these are fixed amounts that must be awarded by all courts, regardless of how heinous the crimes are. Judge Solis-Reyes’ decision is an example of the prevalence of this impression among judges.
In all heinous crime cases that resulted in the victims’ death, the Supreme Court has never been remiss in profusely using strong words condemning the loss of priceless life. By fixing the value of life to a measly P100,000 (in civil indemnity), however, the high court contradicts its words by giving the impression that, in reality, it values life as cheap.
The high court’s hesitation to give a higher monetary value to human life may stem from apprehension that it will encroach on the powers of Congress, because it was the latter that initially fixed the value of a life lost to crime at P3,000 in 1950 (under the New Civil Code). While the Supreme Court has slowly and gradually increased the amount to what is now P100,000, its timidity in doing so betrays uneasiness that it may be usurping legislative powers.
It’s high time that the Supreme Court viewed instead the congressional fixing of the value of life as an unconstitutional violation of judicial powers. The valuation of each unique life lost to violent crime is exclusively a judicial function, and courts must impose civil indemnity that approximates the priceless value of life.
The practice of our courts in also fixing moral damages to a miserly amount of P100,000, despite the unimaginable emotional anguish suffered by heirs like those in the Maguindanao Massacre, is equally lamentable. Any verbal commiseration expressed by our courts on the emotional pain suffered by victims of heinous crimes rings hollow, if the amount awarded for moral damages insults the level of unspeakable anguish suffered.
Finally, how can the public be discouraged from repeating a heinous crime like the Maguindanao Massacre if the exemplary damages awarded are also in the pitiable amount of P100,000? With this meager amount, the award of exemplary damages is a toothless tool to stop the commission of similar crimes in the future.
Recently, the House of Representatives gave P150,000 in Christmas bonus to each of its employees, an amount 50 percent higher than the value of human life as fixed by our courts. Our judges and justices should get the hint. If they wait for a kin to be victimized with a heinous crime, they will realize belatedly that they’ve been playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the dispensation of justice.
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