West Tower residents ask judge to inhibit self
The residents of West Tower Condominium have asked the judge handling the P2-billion suit they filed against the Lopez-owned First Philippine Industrial Corp. (FPIC) to inhibit himself from the case.
“The plaintiffs believe that [Makati Regional Trial Court Judge Eugene Paras has] lost his appearance of impartiality in trying and hearing, much less deciding, the case. He has already prejudged the case in favor of the defendants. He has exhibited conduct that reasonably gives rise to perceptions of unfairness, preconception and prejudice,” the residents said in the motion to inhibit they filed through their lawyer, Lorna Kapunan.
In an order dated August 22, Paras ruled that the suit filed by the residents was just an ordinary damage claim and not environmental in nature since they were asking for payment for damages and not the enforcement of environmental laws or their environmental rights.
He subsequently ordered the residents to pay the appropriate fees for the filing of the case and for their names to be dropped as parties to the lawsuit.
“Considering that some of the plaintiffs may have suffered greater damage than others, and that each must prove [the damage they sustained], the damages that may be awarded to each cannot be the same. Consequently, each plaintiff must pay his own docket fee after he determines the amount of damages he suffered,” Paras said.
At the same time, Paras referred the case to the Makati Regional Trial Court executive judge so that it could be re-raffled to a regular court.
The respondents said the ruling “was issued not only in blatant disregard of the law and jurisprudence but [with] grave abuse of discretion.”
The residents, who were forced to move out of the 22-story building due to an oil leak, had accused FPIC of violating the Philippine Clean Water Act, Philippine Clean Air Act and Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act.
They also named as defendants in the case First Gen Corp. and oil giants Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp. and Chevron Philippines Inc.
FPIC owns and operates a pipeline which was found to be the source of the oil that had leaked into the basement of the condominium, leading to the building’s closure last year.
The pipe transports oil products from Batangas province to the Pandacan oil depot in Manila.
“We have already lost our homes. Now we are being asked to pay for our right to even have a chance of recovering what was blatantly taken from us,” said Manuel Chuaunsu, one of the condo unit owners.
In the motion, Kapunan insisted that the residents’ complaint was an environmental case since the damage they suffered was caused by the violation of environmental laws.
According to her, the court ignored the rules of procedure on environmental cases, which allow the filing of a civil or criminal complaint or special civil action in relation to the enforcement or violation of environmental laws and mandate the deferment of the payment of docket and filing fees.
Under these rules, the docket and filing fees would merely constitute a lien on a favorable judgment by the court, Kapunan explained.
“Jurisprudence has already provided that a case is deemed a pollution or environmental case for as long as the cause of the damage is an environmental violation. Therefore, it is immaterial that the complaint prayed for damages alone because the very reason for the damages [being] claimed is an environmental violation for which FPIC and other defendants in the case are responsible,” part of the motion read.
“The oil spill itself is an environmental violation. [Without] this environmental violation, there would be no complaint to speak of,” the motion read. “The damage to all the residents was caused by only one occurrence—negligence in the maintenance and operation of the pipeline which directly caused the fuel spillage in Barangay Bangkal.”
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