THE good news that Public Attorney's Office (PAO) chief Persida Rueda Acosta announced last October 19 was that the Cebu Regional Trial Court ordered that 55 families who lost relatives in the 2008 sinking of M/V Princess of the Stars be indemnified with the total amount of P226.9 million in damages and attorney's fees.
It is already 13 years since the Cebu-based Sulpicio Lines Inc. vessel sank on January 21, 2008 off Sibuyan Island in Romblon, in the course of its Manila-to-Cebu trip, killing 717 passengers and crew, sparing only 32 of 849 people who sailed with the ship at the height of Typhoon Frank.
Of the claims for compensation, only 130 were left in court: 71 in Manila and 59 in Cebu.
'HAPPY, RELIEVED.' Families in the 55 cases, out of 59 consolidated in Cebu, were "happy and relieved" over the result, Rueda-Acosta reportedly said in her media briefing. Cebu RTC Judge Dante Corminal awarded moral and exemplary damages and loss of earning capacity, about P199.9 million, and the rest, 10 percent of the total monetary award, as attorneys' fees.
The PAO chief thanked Judge Corminal and Judge Daniel Villanueva of the Manila RTC, where the 71 cases were filed and also won by the complainants. She also thanked PAO forensic chief Dr. Erwin Erfe and other witnesses, particularly members of the Philippine Coast Guard.
But there was no word as to when the victims' kin would get the cash.
MAYBE NOT IN NEAR FUTURE. Rueda-Acosta didn't say when the families would receive the money: computed at, for each family, P200,000 damages plus loss of income, ranging from P1.9 million to P9 million. Probably not soon.
Interestingly, the Manila RTC six years ago, in October 2015, awarded much more for each family that sued there: P400,000 for moral damages and another P400,000 for exemplary damages or a total of P800,000, aside from actual expenses related to the death and loss of earning capacity of each passenger, computed from salaries or income one would've earned in his lifetime. Four survivors were also awarded P1 million each. Manila RTC Judge Villanueva awarded more than P241 million in damages for 71 families. Compare that to the Cebu RTC grant.
Rueda-Acosta in her October 19 good news said the Manila cases "are now the subject of appeal before the Court of Appeals." She didn't say Sulpicio/Pan Asia would also appeal the Cebu decision but, given its legal response in Manila, most likely would go to the higher court.
LIABILITIES, CHANGE OF NAME. The shipping company is recorded in www.lloydsmiu.com as having the experience of "45 sea accidents between 1980 and 2008," including the sinking of M/V Dona Paz in 1987, "considered the world's worst peacetime sea tragedy," with more than 5,000 people dead.
In 2009, one year after the Princess disaster, Sulpicio Lines Inc. changed its name to Philippine Pan Asia Carrier Inc. The change of name though did not spare the shipping firm of more disasters, most infamously the 2013 collision of its Sulpicio Express Siete with the 2Go ferry St. Thomas Aquinas off Lawis Ledge in Talisay City, with 203 dead and presumed dead.
Did it acquire Sulpicio's liabilities? That has not been made clear. It is not also certain if assets of Pan Asia Carrier, now a cargo fleet, would be enough to pay for court liabilities in the Princess disaster and other sea mishaps in which Sulpicio/Pan Asia had figured.
The certain fact is that being awarded money by the court is not equivalent, at least immediately, to cash in the hands of the complainants.
WHAT CEBU COURT FOUND VS SHIPPING FIRM. Cebu RTC Judge Corminal found from the records:
 "Categorical" evidence of "fraud and negligence" on the part of the company that ran M/V Princess of the Stars (launched in Japan in 1984 and had its maiden voyage in the Philippines in 2004; 24 years old when it capsized).
 The ship captain took "a calculated risk" -- sailing despite the typhoon -- which proved "fatal to passengers."
 "Wanton, fraudulent and reckless" transfer of dangerous cargo, 10,000 kilos of the pesticide Endosulfan and similarly hazardous cargo in two containers, which the ship personnel didn't disclose during inspection.
 No crisis or emergency management "employed before, during and after the tragedy," as testified to by survivors.
'ACT OF GOD' EXCUSE REJECTED. In the story on the Manila RTC's 2015 ruling -- which basically had the same facts about the disaster -- Judge Villanueva said there was breach of contract to take the passengers to their Cebu destination and negligence of Sulpicio/Pan Asia and its eight officials all surnamed Go and ship captain Florencio Marimon Sr. The judge said the presumption of fault and negligence from the breach of contract was not refuted by the respondents.
Rejecting the shipping firm's claim of fortuitous event or act of God --dramatized by its unsuccessful lawsuit against Pagasa for "inexcusable and criminal negligence" -- the Manila court said there was already a forecast from Pagasa of storm signals No. 2 and No. 3 in the areas covered by the Princess routes but no instruction was given for the ship to take shelter.
The Manila court's finding echoed the August 25, 2008 report of the Philippine Board of Marine Inquiry, submitted to Marina (Maritime Industry Authority), which found Sulpicio and ship captain Marimon, missing and presumed dead, liable for the tragedy. BMI blamed human error, not God's act, "the miscalculation" and failure to exercise "extraordinary diligence and good seamanship."
LESSONS FROM TRAGEDY. The trail of the investigation, from the Board of Marine Inquiry to the various courts, shows that ample due process is afforded to the shipping company and its officials.
But the route is long and tortuous, especially to the complainants. One hundred thirty families, in Manila and Cebu, that bothered to litigate must know that by now. Even court decisions based on facts long proved and un-refuted are still disputed in higher courts.
The 2008 Princess of the Stars tragedy instructs not just the sea transport industry and the sailing public but also the legislators and those who govern. The legal structure of due process in sea transportation cases apparently needs a review. And how a shipping company could do business for decades despite its serial violations may reflect on competence and integrity of government regulators.