A CHILD’S LIFE HAS NO PRICE
I recall handling a case involving a grieving mother whose 20-year old daughter died from a bus accident.
The bus was cut clean with the side opposite the driver eaten so to speak by a truck that came from the other direction. That visualization alone would give you an idea how fast both vehicles were and the force of the impact so as to tear the hull of a bus into half.
The photos of the incident reminds you of scenes you’d only see in movies. The remaining half of the bus lay immobile at the side road as if a supervillain had torn it into half and threw it there. Then, there were the lifeless bodies littered on the street. One of them presumably was the daughter. I did not venture finding out which one.
The case was almost in its third year when I inherited it. It barely moved. I came into the picture to prepare the Answer. Going through the records and after attending a couple of hearings, I realized the reason for the snail-pace of the proceedings. We were hearing the case before a sala with no permanent judge. To be clear, the judge hearing the case had an original sala somewhere else in the province. Yes, the venue was somewhere outside Metro Manila. Then there were the substitution and replacement of the previous judges.
Those notwithstanding, the case was finally scheduled for preliminary conference. We were redirected to the Philippine Mediation Center (PMC) to see whether an amicable settlement would be possible to close the case.
To date, this case remains to be the longest mediation I attended lasting for about 6 months.
The first mediation hearing started with an emotional outburst from the 50-year old mother who herself was dismayed at the slow process. She lashed out on me who was the closest person she could be angry with as I represented the bus company. I sensed how deep her anger and grievance was at the loss of her daughter.
The mediation officer who was in her 30s listened intently and sympathized at the plight of the grieving mother. When her good sense prevailed, the mother was advised of the nature of the mediation proceedings. That it was the stage of a case where parties may explore the possibility of a settlement.
At that, the mother thundered and with full vigor said no. She will never settle as she wanted the company to be made liable. In response, the mediation officer advised us that perhaps it would be best to schedule another hearing when both parties may have had time to think.
On the next scheduled hearing, with instructions from the client to settle, I opened up first sympathizing with the mother. It would really be naive of me to say I know what she felt. I knew that imagination is the closest way I can relate. I was met with cold and cynicism. There I explored and confirmed my hunch that she had already went through the company who may have not given her enough attention resulting in her going to the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO). Here we are now.
When the mediation officer asked whether there was an offer, my training kicked in as I instinctively asked the mother whether she had an amount in mind. I was in my third year in practice at this time and had my fair share already of mediation and negotiation. In some cases, it was a standard operating procedure to ask the complainant since they were the ones aggrieved. In this case, it was best not to have asked this question. (It would have been better to take an indirect approach at figuring out the amount.)
In full fury, she bellowed in pain and anger asking a rhetorical question: “Attorney, paano mo maprepresyuhan buhay ng anak ko?!” (Attorney, how can you put a price on the life of my child?!)
At that point in time, my law education and legal training gave me no legal answer to reply to such an unwinnable question. They taught me how to be a good lawyer. They did not teach me how to be a better human being.
I could again just listen to her as she once again started to grind the wheels of her pain and anger. With that simple question, I gave her a platform where she can once more lash out on me. She shrieked and cried thinking what had happened to her cause. Was it now only about the money? Hysterical is an understatement to describe her reaction at this time.
To let cooler heads prevailed, the mediator decided to set another hearing. This time, it came with instructions on me to make an offer in the next conference.
I was not a fan of the mediation hearings, particularly on the way it was going. I was an emotional punchbag of a grieving mother who you know will always win as she lost a child who was quite young in the blossom of youth. If I go head on, I would end up being the bad guy and only reinforce her strongly held opinion against the bus company. Not to mention, the venue of the hearing took 3 hours to get there and the same time to get back, plus 2 hours EDSA traffic. That’s eight hours of travel and work just to be at the receiving end of one’s ire. I was always beat after the hearing.
Then, something happened.
In a subsequent hearing, as I was on my way to the mediation, I saw the mother outside talking to a companion. They were using a dialect. I knew the dialect. It was Waray.
I greeted them in the same dialect. At first, I was met with skepticisim. Then, the mother greeted me back. We started talking about the same province where we came from. We were both from Eastern Samar. We talked many other things except the case.
When we were called into the mediation hearing, the mediator picked up where we left off. This time, I was to make an offer. Uncertain whether we were already in good terms, I delayed responding and asked the mother first how she was and letting the mediator know that we were from the same province. I got some positive response. I slowly explained to her the offer of the bus company which was generous.
The mother was hesistant to reply. I sensed why. There is no moral code out there which would make any parent feel good putting a price on the life of their dead child. This was where she was coming from. This was her framework. In mediation, this is called a position. It can be difficult to move a person’s position as this is a deeply-held belief and yes, subjective.
I thus avoided her position and tailored my language on the value and benefits of closing the case. Her daughter left the mother a grandchild in her toddler years. With the money, the mother could use it for her grandchild’s upbringing. With the settlement, the mother can finally have closure.
The mother initially said she will first think about it. When the mediator suggested that we have another hearing, she also instructed us to contact each other after the hearing and before the next one to prepare the necessary documents.
After the hearing, and the mother having reached out, an agreement to settle was eventually reached. The partner in-charge with the case was surprised and glad to learn that a settlement was finally struck. At the start, he was clear with me how sensitive the case was given the background. Despite that, I was able to pull it off in a few months. Note that the case lingered for over 5 years already with the law firm before I took charge. The previous handling lawyers found it difficult to manage the emotional aspects of the case and thus they moved on without much of a development. (In a previous law firm, a partner also commented how it is that I managed to settle cases when others have not. I always think that it is not really “I” who settle the case. It is more of the parties. I only facilitate and pave the way for talks.)
We were pleased to inform the mediation officer and the judge of the developments. Before parting ways, I talked to the mother for a few minutes in our dialect and thereafter said our goodbyes knowing we may never see again. I do hope nanay is doing well with her apo.
Tragedies happen. May it not end one’s happiness and reason for living. There is always a silverlining, someway, somehow.