Covid-19 vs. Obligation

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The response of the present civilization to Covid-19 is unprecedented. Government of many countries have ordered their citizens to stay at home and practice social and physical distancing to contain or avert the spread of the dreaded virus. The world economy is at a peril now since businesses have been forced to cease or limit their operations. Many are out of work and the most vulnerable members of our society are placed at an even more difficult situation while government scramble to deal with this pandemic. At the start of the community quarantine imposed in the island of Luzon, many individuals posed the question: what happens to their obligations such as rent and indebtedness?



Our Civil Code says: Art. 1170. Those who in the performance of their obligations are guilty of fraud, negligence, or delay, and those who in any manner contravene the tenor thereof, are liable for damages. One who delays in the performance of his obligation such as to pay an indebtedness, may be liable for damages but what if he is willing to fulfill his obligation but he is prevented by the imposition of the community quarantine? Of course “delay” has a legal meaning under our civil code but the relevant question for us at present is whether the community quarantine is a valid “excuse” for the non-performance of obligation. Article 1174 of the same code says: “Except in cases expressly specified by the law, or when it is otherwise declared by stipulation, or when the nature of the obligation requires the assumption of risk, no person shall be responsible for those events which could not be foreseen, or which, though foreseen, were inevitable.” This is the definition of the so called “fortuitous event”. If a person is unable to perform his obligation by reason of a fortuitous event he shall not be responsible for it.

But the next question is whether the imposition of the community quarantine due to Covid-19 may be considered as “fortuitous event”? The Supreme Court in various cases defined the meaning of “fortuitous event”: “Article 1174 of the Civil Code defines a fortuitous event as that which could not be foreseen, or which, though foreseen, was inevitable. Whether an act of god or an act of man, to constitute a fortuitous event, it must be shown that: a) the cause of the unforeseen and unexpected occurrence or of the failure of the obligor to comply with its obligations was independent of human will; b) it was impossible to foresee the event or, if it could have been foreseen, to avoid it; c) the occurrence rendered it impossible for the obligor to fulfill its obligations in a normal manner; and d) said obligor was free from any participation in the aggravation of the injury or loss. If the negligence or fault of the obligor coincided with the occurrence of the fortuitous event, and caused the loss or damage or the aggravation thereof, the fortuitous event cannot shield the obligor from liability for his negligence.” (G.R. No. 155604, November 22, 2007 COLLEGE ASSURANCE PLAN AND COMPREHENSIVE ANNUITY PLAN AND PENSION CORPORATION VS. BELFRANLT DEVELOPMENT INC.) It can be said that the imposition of the community quarantine by the president is unforeseen or unexpected, impossible to avoid, and rendered it impossible for the obligation to be performed or fulfilled. Although this writer cannot make a conclusive statement because only the Supreme Court can, the events surrounding the community quarantine more or less can lead us to say that it is a fortuitous event.
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