Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

SECOND DIVISION

G.R. No. 185899               December 8, 2010

SPOUSES REUBEN DELA CRUZ AND MINERVA DELA CRUZ, Petitioner,
vs.
RAMON C. PAPA IV, in his capacity as Co-Administrator of the Estate of ANGELA M. BUTTE, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

ABAD, J.:

This case is about the plaintiffís lone witness who passed away due to illness before the adverse party could cross-examine him.

The Facts and the Case

In 1994, the Intestate Estate of Angela M. Butte (the Estate) filed an action for cancellation of titles, recovery of properties, and damages against several defendants, including petitioner spouses Reuben and Minerva Dela Cruz (the Dela Cruzes) before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Antipolo City in Civil Cases 94-3447 and 95-3816. On October 21, 1999 the Estate presented Myron C. Papa (Myron), its executor, to testify on the substance of the complaint. At the conclusion of Myronís testimony on that day, the RTC required the Estate and the latter agreed to present Myron anew at the next scheduled hearing to identify the originals of certain exhibits, after which counsels for the defendants, would begin to cross-examine him.

But the Estate never got around recalling Myron to the witness stand. He was taken ill and diagnosed as suffering from stage four colon and liver cancer, prompting respondent Ramon C. Papa IV (Ramon), the Estateís co-administrator, to seek repeated postponements of hearings in the case to allow Myron undergo intensive treatment. Later, the Estate filed a motion for leave to have the defendants cross-examine Myron by deposition at the hospital where he was confined. The RTC granted the motion on February 22, 20011 and eventually set the deposition-taking on September 7, 2001 but Myron passed away on August 16, 2001.

On November 15, 2001 one of the defendants moved to expunge Myronís direct testimony. The Dela Cruzes for their part moved to dismiss the case for failure of the Estate to prosecute it. On March 13, 2002 the RTC issued an order, denying the two motions based on the ground that the Estate had no control of the circumstances that caused the delay in the case.

On December 3, 2003 the Estate asked leave of court to file its formal offer of exhibits. On December 5, 2003 the Dela Cruzes filed a motion to strike out Myronís testimony on the ground of failure to cross-examine him. Meanwhile, the Estate filed its formal offer of evidence.

In a March 4, 2005 Order,2 the RTC granted the Dela Cruzesí motion to strike out Myronís testimony on the ground that, due to the Estateís fault, such testimony was never completed, depriving the defendants of the opportunity to cross-examine him. Because the RTC denied the Estateís motion for reconsideration,3 it filed a special civil action of certiorari and mandamus before the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP 91074, assailing the March 4, 2005 Order. Meanwhile, on August 16, 2005 the RTC admitted the Dela Cruzesí demurrer to evidence.

On July 25, 2008 the CA rendered a Decision,4 granting the petition and setting aside the RTCís order that struck out Myronís testimony. The CA denied the Dela Cruzesí motion for reconsideration.

Although the CA likewise set aside the RTCís denial of the respondentís documentary evidence and its admission of the Dela Cruzesí demurrer, it held that the RTC may not be compelled by mandamus to admit the documentary exhibits in issue, since the matter of admitting them is discretionary upon it. Because the CA declined to reconsider,5 the Dela Cruzes filed this petition for review, seeking reinstatement of the RTCís Order dated March 4, 2005.

The Issue Presented

The key issue in this case is whether or not the CA erred in reinstating Myronís testimony after the RTC ordered the same stricken out for depriving the defendants of the opportunity to cross-examine him.

The Courtís Ruling

The CA said that the defendants were guilty of unreasonable delay in objecting to Myronís testimony. Myron died on August 16, 2001 yet the other defendants moved to expunge his testimony only on November 15, 2001. On the other hand, the Dela Cruzes filed a similar motion only in December 2003. Citing Section 36, Rule 132 of the Rules of Court,6 the CA held that they should have objected to Myronís testimony when it was offered or soon after the reason for objecting to its admission became apparent. When they failed to do so, said the CA, the defendants waived their right to object to the same.

The CA characterized the defendantsí actions as betraying an "intention to defeat the (Estateís) action through a technicality."7 Because Myronís testimony was expunged after the respondent Estate had rested its case, it could no longer present other witnesses who may testify on and identify its documentary evidence, thus resulting in its inadmissibility. The CA ruled that as a result of the RTCís error in sustaining the defendantsí actions, the Estate was thus "effectively deprived of an opportunity to meet the consequences of the expunction of Myronís testimony."8

But it is evident that the defendantsí right to cross-examine Myron did not yet come up when he finished his direct testimony on October 21, 1999. The Estate undertook to return him to the witness stand to identify for it the originals of certain documents. Consequently, when Myron was taken ill, the obligation to move the case forward continued to be on the Estateís side. Rather than move it, however, the Estate repeatedly asked for the deferment of Myronís testimony on the chance that he could recover and return to court. It took the Estate more than a year to remedy the situation by asking the RTC to allow the cross-examination of Myron in the hospital where he was confined. Thus, only when the Court granted this motion on February 22, 2001 did it become evident that the Estate was waiving the additional direct examination that it reserved on October 21, 1999. Thus, the turn of the Dela Cruzes to cross-examine Myron came only after February 22, 2001.

But having their turn to cross-examine Myron is different from their being accorded an opportunity to cross-examine him. The RTC set the deposition taking on September 7, 2001 but Myron died before that date, on August 16, 2001. Consequently, it was not the defendantsí fault that they were unable to cross-examine him.

The CA appears too hasty in blaming the defendants for the further delays that followed. When Myron died on August 16, 2001, the obligation to close his aborted testimony and proceed with its other evidence remained with the Estate. But it did nothing, prompting one of the defendants to ask the RTC on November 15, 2001 to strike down Myronís testimony on the ground of the defendantsí failure to cross-examine him. The Dela Cruzes themselves asked that the case be dismissed for the Estateís failure to prosecute after such a long time.

Still, wanting to give the Estate the chance to present additional evidence, on March 13, 2002 the RTC denied the defendantsí motions. But the Estate did nothing for about a year and eight months until December 3, 2003 when, rather than present additional evidence, it asked leave to close its case with a formal offer of its documentary exhibits. Clearly, it was only at this stage that the Estate signaled its intention to still avail itself of Myronís unfinished testimony. And the Dela Cruzes did not lose time to act. On December 5, 2003 they renewed the defendantsí earlier motion to expunge such testimony. And this time, the RTC granted the motion. It did so correctly since the Estate showed a lack of interest in offering a substitute testimony for that of Myronís.

Since the Estate presented its documentary exhibits and had the same authenticated through Myronís testimony, it stands to reason that the striking out of the latterís testimony altogether wiped out the required authentication for those exhibits. They become inadmissible unless the RTC, in its discretion, reopens the trial upon a valid ground and permits the Estate to rectify its mistakes.

ACCORDINGLY, the Court GRANTS the petition and SETS ASIDE the Court of Appealsí decision and resolution in CA-G.R. SP 91074 dated July 25, 2008 and January 12, 2009, respectively, and REINSTATES the order of the Regional Trial Court of Antipolo City in Civil Cases 94-3447 and 95-3816 dated March 4, 2005.

SO ORDERED.

ROBERTO A. ABAD
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Associate Justice

ANTONIO EDUARDO B. NACHURA
Associate Justice
DIOSDADO M. PERALTA
Associate Justice

JOSE CATRAL MENDOZA
Associate Justice

A T T E S T A T I O N

I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courtís Division.

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Associate Justice
Chairperson, Second Division

C E R T I F I C A T I O N

Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution and the Division Chairpersonís Attestation, I certify that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courtís Division.

RENATO C. CORONA
Chief Justice


Footnotes

1 Rollo, p. 226.

2 Id. at 206-207.

3 Id. at 187; Order dated June 9, 2005.

4 Id. at 34-43; penned by Associate Justice Ricardo R. Rosario, with the concurrence of Associate Justices Rebecca de Guia-Salvador and Vicente S.E. Veloso.

5 Id. at 44-45; Resolution dated January 12, 2009.

6 Sec. 36. Objection. ó Objection to evidence offered orally must be made immediately after the offer is made.

Objection to a question propounded in the course of the oral examination of a witness shall be made as soon as the grounds therefor shall become reasonably apparent.

An offer of evidence in writing shall be objected to within three (3) days after notice of the offer unless a different period is allowed by the court.

In any case, the grounds for the objections must be specified.

7 Rollo, pp. 40-41.

8 Id. at 41.


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