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Liquid tears, diamond tears

LAST JAN. 11, the Supreme Court found Ruben Baron of Iloilo City guilty of the crime of rape with homicide. His victim was a 7-year-old child whom he lured to a joyride in his pedicab and then raped near a seawall before he drowned her to death.

The Supreme Court expressed the rage of the child’s family when it declared that “there is no penalty commensurate with the indignity and the suffering that this child endured in the fading moments of her brief life.” It sentenced Baron to reclusion perpetua (commonly referred to as life imprisonment, but actually amounting to 30 years in prison). The tribunal also expressed the immeasurable pain of the child’s family in declaring that there is no monetary “equivalent to the loss of potential and the lifelong grief” of the bereaved.

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But despite those words that captured the family’s anger and grief, the Supreme Court may have added more anger and grief when it awarded to the family a miserly P100,000 in moral damages and P100,000 in exemplary damages.

Last Jan. 18, the high court found Zaldy Salahuddin guilty of the crime of murder. He was found to have killed lawyer Segundo Sotto Jr. with multiple gunshots while the latter was driving his owner-type jeepney on his way home in Zamboanga City. The tribunal sentenced Salahuddin to reclusion perpetua, but it also merely awarded Sotto’s family a miserly P100,000 in moral damages and P100,000 in exemplary damages.

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On Oct. 1, 2013, the high court found Halil Gambao and his eight coaccused guilty of the crime of kidnapping for ransom. They were found to have kidnapped a fish dealer in Manila and extorted ransom money from her family before the police managed to rescue her. The tribunal sentenced Gambao et al. to reclusion perpetua, but it also merely awarded the victim a miserly P100,000 in moral damages and P100,000 in exemplary damages.

I wrote about the price of human life in this space two weeks ago. This time, I am discussing the price of grief and the cost of deterrence. Moral damages are the value given by a court for the lifelong grief, sleepless nights, and mental anguish suffered by those who lose a loved one or by any victim of a crime that causes emotional pain. Exemplary damages are awarded in order to frighten the public from repeating the same crime.

The amount of P100,000 each for moral and exemplary damages in the three cases I mentioned is actually an increased amount specified by the Supreme Court starting in 2013 for crimes “where death is the penalty warranted by the facts but is not imposable under the present law” because of its suspension. While the high court said this amount shall be the “minimum” damage to be awarded for top-level crimes, no lower court judge will dare impose higher awards considering that the high court itself has awarded that amount for the most horrific crime of rape with homicide of a child.

However, there has been an instance when the Supreme Court awarded moral and exemplary damages multiple times higher than it awarded in top-level crimes.

On Nov. 28, 2011, it awarded businessman Alfonso T. Yuchengco P11 million in moral damages and P1.2 million in exemplary damages after upholding his complaint that he was defamed by a series of libelous newspaper articles tagging him a “Marcos crony” and accusing him of engaging in “unsafe and immoral business practices” and of “being an unfair and uncaring employer,” among others.

The high court awarded P11 million in moral damages to Yuchengco for his “anguish” and for his “grief and suffering” caused by the supposed libelous articles. He was awarded P1.2 million in exemplary damages “to serve as a deterrent against” libel.

Comparing the award of moral damages to Yuchengco for his “anguish” caused by alphabet letters to that awarded for the “lifelong grief” of the child’s parents in the rape-homicide case, it becomes evident that the Supreme Court is unwittingly sending the message that words can cause far greater grief than any weapon or physical violence that causes mortal death.

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There should be no difference between the grief of the rich and the anguish of the poor. Difference should only be allowed by giving greater value to grief caused by loss of irreplaceable life compared to mere damage to replaceable reputation. We are living in a society with distorted values if we foster a belief that the poor shed liquid tears while the rich shed diamond tears.

Also, by awarding P1.2 million in exemplary damages to Yuchengco as deterrence against libel, but merely awarding P100,000 as deterrence against terrible crimes like rape with homicide, murder, and kidnapping for ransom, the Supreme Court is unwittingly sending the message that it gives far greater value to reputation than to priceless life itself.

It is high time the high court seriously reviewed its practice of being miserly with moral and exemplary damages for loss of life resulting from gruesome crimes, while being generous with the same kind of damages in cases involving reputation, fraud, and even matters of commerce.

If the Supreme Court continues with its policy of awarding measly damages for terrible deaths, the total combined amount of moral and exemplary damages it will end up awarding the 58 victims in the horrific Ampatuan massacre—in case of conviction—will even be less than the award it has given for the mere word-inflicted grief of one lucky businessman.

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