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807 Phil. 491

SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 207146, March 15, 2017 ]

SPOUSES LARRY AND ROSARITA WILLIAMS, PETITIONERS, VS. RAINERO A. ZERDA, RESPONDENT.

DECISION

MENDOZA, J.:

This is a petition for review on certiorari assailing the November 28, 2012 Decision[1] and the April 16, 2013 Resolution[2] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CV No. 01115-MIN, which reversed and set aside the September 11, 2006 Decision[3] and the February 8, 2007 Order[4] of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 30, Surigao City, (RTC) in Civil Case No. 6285, a case for easement of right of way.

The Facts

Respondent Rainero A. Zerda (Zerda) was the owner of a parcel of land, known as Lot No. 1177-B (dominant estate) of the Surigao Cadastre, situated in Barangay Lipata, Surigao City, with an area of 16,160 square meters (sq. m.), and covered by Transfer Certificate of Title (TCT) No. T-18074. Immediately behind the dominant estate was Lot No. 7298, a swampy mangrove area owned by the Republic of the Philippines. On both sides were Lot No. 1177-C, registered under the name of Woodridge Properties, Inc. and Lot No. 1206, in the name of Luis G. Dilag. In front was Lot No. 1201-A owned by petitioner-spouses Larry and Rosarita Williams (Spouses Williams), where the national highway ran along.[5]

On July 28, 2004, Zerda filed a complaint against Spouses Williams for easement of right of way. The complaint alleged that Zerda's lot was without adequate outlet to a public highway, that it could not be accessed except by passing through Spouses Williams' property; that the isolation of Zerda's property was not due to his own acts, as it was the natural consequence of its location; that the right of way he was claiming was at a point least prejudicial to Spouses Williams' property; and that on January 27, 2004, Zerda wrote to Spouses Williams formally asking them to provide him with right of way, for which he was willing to pay its reasonable value or to swap a portion of his property, but Spouses Williams refused.[6]

Spouses Williams countered that the complaint should be dismissed for lack of cause of action because Zerda failed to establish the requisites for the existence of right of way. They claimed that sometime in May 2003, they were in negotiation with Agripino Sierra (Sierra), the former owner of the dominant estate, for its sale to them but the sale did not materialize due to the intervention of Zerda. Spouses Williams further averred that they undertook visible development projects on their property as early as May 2003 amounting to P6,619,678.00; that the isolation of the dominant estate was Zerda's fault; and that his requested right of way would cause great damage and prejudice to them.[7]

The RTC Ruling

In its September 11, 2006 Decision, the RTC ruled in favor of Spouses Williams. It found that the isolation of Zerda's lot was due to his own acts because when he bought the said property, he was aware that Spouses Williams had already started introducing improvements on their own property. It stated that Spouses Williams were able to prove that while they were in negotiation with Sierra for the purchase of the dominant estate, Zerda intervened and bought the land himself, knowing full well that the land was surrounded by other immovables.[8]

The RTC also noted that the right of way requested by Zerda was not the shortest distance from the dominant estate to the public highway. It observed that the shortest distance began "from the northeastern corner of Lot 1177-B, the dominant estate, following the northern boundary of Lot 1201-A, the servient estate, and running across the southeastern portion of Lot 1177-C straight up to the public highway."[9]

Finally, the RTC granted the claim of Spouses Williams for moral damages and exemplary damages. The fallo reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, let the herein complaint be DISMISSED without pronouncement as to costs. However, on the compulsory counterclaim, plaintiff is hereby ordered to pay defendants moral damages in the sum of P30,000.00 and exemplary damages of P20,000.00.

SO ORDERED.[10]
Zerda filed a motion for reconsideration. In its February 8, 2007 Order,[11] the RTC partially granted the motion by deleting the award of moral damages.

Aggrieved, Zerda appealed before the CA.

The CA Ruling

In its assailed November 28, 2012 Decision, the CA reversed and set aside the ruling of the RTC. It explained that the isolation of Zerda's property was not due to his own acts, and to deny the right of way to a purchaser of an enclosed estate simply because of his prior knowledge that the same was surrounded by immovables would render the law on easements nugatory. "In effect, the purchaser would only be filling into the shoe[s] of the previous owner of the isolated property in the exercise of his right to demand an easement of right of way. The new owner did not do anything that would have caused the deliberate isolation of the property."[12]

Further, the CA declared that Zerda was not in bad faith when he intervened in the negotiation for the sale of the dominant estate between Sierra, the previous owner and Spouses Williams. It noted that Sierra himself denied knowing Larry Williams, thereby negating the spouses' claim of a negotiation. The CA added that even if there was a prior negotiation, Sierra could not be deprived of his right to sell his property to a buyer of his own choosing.[13]

The CA also found that the right of way, proposed by Zerda, was the shortest distance to the national highway and the least prejudicial to the servient estate. It laid emphasis on Spouses Williams' admission that they had no intention to build houses in the area sought and that the 705.20 sq. m. long pathway would only affect a small portion of their lot which had a total area of 12,200 sq. m. The dispositive portion of the CA ruling reads:
WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The September n, 2006 Decision and February 8, 2007 Order of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 30, Surigao City is REVERSED and SET ASIDE.

We hereby order (a) appellees to allow the right of passage by the appellant thru their Lot 1201-A; and (b) appellant to pay private respondent the indemnity therefor to be determined by the trial court. The case is hereby REMANDED to the trial court for the determination of the proper amount of indemnity for the easement of right of way under Article 649.

SO ORDERED.[14]
Spouses Williams moved for reconsideration, but their motion was denied by the CA in its assailed resolution, dated April 16, 2013.

Hence, this petition.
ISSUE

WHETHER RESPONDENT ZERDA IS ENTITLED TO AN EASEMENT OF RIGHT OF WAY.
Spouses Williams argue that the respondent caused the isolation of his property because he bought the lot with notice that it had no access to the national highway and was surrounded by other immovables; that the respondent was in bad faith because he was aware that they were negotiating with Sierra over the purchase of the dominant estate when he intervened and bought the property himself; that the shortest distance from the dominant estate to the public highway began from the northeastern corner of Lot No. 1177-B (the dominant estate) following the northern boundary of Lot No. 1201-A, then passing through the southeastern portion of Lot No. 1171-C; and that the right of way requested by the respondent was not the least prejudicial in view of the developments introduced by them thereon.

Zerda was ordered by the Court to file his comment on the petition of Spouses Williams. Despite several opportunities granted to him, he failed to file his comment. Thus, his right to file a comment on the petition for review was deemed waived.

The Court's Ruling

The conferment of the legal easement of right of way is governed by Articles 649 and 650 of the Civil Code:
ART. 649. The owner, or any person who by virtue of a real right may cultivate or use any immovable, which is surrounded by other immovables pertaining to other persons and without adequate outlet to a public highway, is entitled to demand a right of way through the neighboring estates, after payment of the proper indemnity.

Should this easement be established in such a manner that its use may be continuous for all the needs of the dominant estate, establishing a permanent passage, the indemnity shall consist of the value of the land occupied and the amount of the damage caused to the servient estate.

In case the right of way is limited to the necessary passage for the cultivation of the estate surrounded by others and for the gathering of its crops through the servient estate without a permanent way, the indemnity shall consist in the payment of the damage caused by such encumbrance.

This easement is not compulsory if the isolation of the immovable is due to the proprietor's own acts.

ART. 650. The easement of right of way shall be established at the point least prejudicial to the servient estate, and, insofar as consistent with this rule, where the distance from the dominant estate to a public highway may be the shortest.
In summary, an entitlement to the easement of right of way requires that the following requisites must be met.
  1. The dominant estate is surrounded by other immovables and has no adequate outlet to a public highway (Art. 649, par. 1);

  2. There is payment of proper indemnity (Art. 649, par. 1);

  3. The isolation is not due to the acts of the proprietor of the dominant estate (Art. 649, last par.); and

  4. The right of way claimed is at the point least prejudicial to the servient estate; and insofar as consistent with this rule, where the distance from the dominant estate to a public highway may be the shortest (Art. 650).[15]
All the above requisites are present in this case.

As regards the first requisite, there is no dispute that the respondent's property was surrounded by other immovables owned by different individuals, including Spouses Williams. The isolation was further shown in the Sketch Plan[16] prepared by Honorato R. Bisnar, the geodetic engineer deputized by the parties. Moreover, contrary to Spouses Williams' claim that there was a barangay road closest to the dominant estate, the RTC, during the ocular inspection, observed that "there was no existing barangay road xxx."[17]

The second requisite of payment of indemnity was also complied with by the respondent when he wrote Spouses Williams on January 27, 2004, formally asking them to provide him with a right of way, for which he was in willing to pay a reasonable value or to swap a portion of his property.[18]

Anent the third requisite, the isolation of the dominant estate was not due to the respondent's own acts. The property he purchased was already surrounded by other immovables leaving him no adequate ingress or egress to a public highway. Spouses Williams refused to grant a right of way and averred that the isolation of the dominant estate was attributable to the respondent's own acts. They pointed out that when the respondent purchased the dominant estate, he knew that Sierra was in negotiation with them for the sale of the dominant estate, thus, he was in bad faith. Nonetheless, it cannot be used to defeat the respondent's claim for a right of way. Sierra had every right to sell his property to anybody. Further, when the respondent bought the dominant estate there could have been no existing contract of sale yet considering that Spouses Williams and Sierra were still in negotiation. Hence, consent, one of the essential requisites for a valid contract, was lacking.

As to the fourth requisite, the Court finds that the right of way sought by the respondent is at the point least prejudicial to the servient estate and it is the shortest distance to the national highway. This is evident in the Sketch Plan[19] showing that the requested right of way was alongside the perimeter of Spouses Williams' property. Moreover, during the ocular inspection, the RTC observed that the right of way, which the respondent was seeking was alongside a precipice.[20] Spouses Williams insisted that they intended to build structures on the portion claimed by the respondent, but at a safe distance from the precipice, not immediately beside it. In addition, the 705.20 sq. m long pathway would only affect a small portion of the 12,200 sq. m. property of Spouses Williams, and for which the respondent expressed willingness to pay.

Even assuming that the right of way being claimed by the respondent is not the shortest distance from the dominant estate to the public highway, it is well-settled that "[t]he criterion of least prejudice to the servient estate must prevail over the criterion of shortest distance although this is a matter of judicial appreciation, xxx In other words, where the easement may be established on any of several tenements surrounding the dominant estate, the one where the way is shortest and will cause the least damage should be chosen. If having these two (2) circumstances do not concur in a single tenement, the way which will cause the least damage should be used, even if it will not be the shortest."[21] As previously discussed, the right of way claimed by the respondent is at a point least prejudicial to the servient estate.

WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED. The November 28, 2012 Decision and the April 16, 2013 Resolution of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 01115-MIN, are AFFIRMED in toto.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, (Chairperson), Peralta, Leonen, and Martires, JJ., concur.



[1] Penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez with Associate Justice Edgardo T. Lloren and Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul B. Inting, concurring; rollo, pp. 30-42.

[2] Id. at 23-28.

[3] Penned by Presiding Judge Floripinas C. Buyser; id. at 43-49.

[4] Id. at 50-53.

[5] Rollo, pp. 30-311.

[6] Id. at 31.

[7] Id. at 31-32.

[8] Id. at 47.

[9] Id. at 48.

[10] Id. at 49.

[11] Id. at 50-53.

[12] Id. at 38-39.

[13] Id. at 40.

[14] Id. at 41.

[15] Dichoso, Jr. v. Marcos, 663 Phil. 48, 55 (2011).

[16] CA Records, p. 94.

[17] TSN Vol. I, p. 6.

[18] CA Records, p. 99.

[19] CA Records, p. 94.

[20] TSN Vol. I, p. 3.

[21] Quimen v. CA, 326 Phil. 969, 972, 979 (1996).

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