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Not a balm for the brokenhearted

Heartbreak borne of the mutability of human affections does not by itself amount to a moral transgression, no matter how deeply or drastically it may cut a trench through one’s psyche.

Dean Nilo Divina

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To love at all is to be vulnerable. This statement by the famous writer C. S. Lewis permits of varied interpretation, but is perhaps most apt as an assertion that love, more than a feeling, is an endeavor — a discipline perfected by deliberate practice and requiring, at the very least, a courageous readiness to assume the risk of heartbreak.

The life of the law is experience, said Oliver Wendell Homes. The law is an ever-evolving instrument for societal ills. At an age pervaded by a heightened awareness of individual romantic frustration, the following question may resonate: Can the might of the law be invoked to vindicate a broken heart? The Supreme Court’s official answer appears to be a categorical “No.”

The Court has had occasion to rule on the issue specific to one area of love’s expression — a promise to marry. The prevailing rule, for better or worse, is that no person may bring an action on a mere breach of promise to marry.

The history of the above rule is traced in the case of Hermosisima vs CA (GR L-14628, 30 September 1960). Prior to the enactment of our present Civil Code, lawmakers entertained the possibility of authorizing actions for breach of promise to marry and granting damages to cover not only material and pecuniary loss, but also mental and moral suffering arising from the same. However, the provisions were ultimately not included. Echoing the era’s prevalent biases, the lawmakers explained that “no other action lends itself more readily to abuse by designing women and unscrupulous men.”

With the enactment of our present Civil Code came Article 21 of the Chapter on Human Relations, crafted to provide a legal remedy for the “untold number of moral wrongs” (Wassmer vs Velez, GR L-20089, 26 December 1964), which may be impossible for human foresight to specifically enumerate and punish (Philippine National Bank vs Court of Appeals, 83 SCRA 237 [1978]). The article states that any person who willfully causes loss or injury to another in a manner contrary to moral or good customs shall be obliged to compensate the latter for damages. In relation to this, Article 2219 of the Civil Code’s Title on Damages provides that moral damages may be recovered for such loss or injury.

In numerous rulings, however, the Court refused to apply these provisions in cases of unfulfilled promises to marry, unless it has been shown that other circumstances causing actionable injury or loss attended the making of the promise.

For instance, in the case of Baksh vs CA (GR 97336, 19 February 1993), a Filipino woman sought damages against her former sweetheart, an Iranian national, for violation of their agreement to get married. The Court ruled in the woman’s favor after determining that the man made his promise to marry only as a “subtle scheme or deceptive device to entice or inveigle (the woman) to accept him and to obtain her consent to sexual acts,” as well as to convince the woman’s parents to agree to their daughter’s living-in with him. The Court did not mince words, condemning the man’s profession of love and promise to marry as “empty words directly intended to fool, dupe, entice, beguile and deceive the poor woman into believing that indeed, he loved her and would want her to be his life’s partner.” Article 21 was thus applied not because of the promise to marry itself, but because of the fraud and deceit behind it and the willful injury to the woman’s honor and reputation that followed its breach.

In the landmark case of Wassmer vs Velez (GR L-20089, 26 December 1964), the Court likewise awarded damages pursuant to Article 21 not because the respondent Velez reneged on his promise to marry, but because he did so after his wife-to-be had already formally set a wedding and went through all the preparation and publicity, including sending out the invitations, holding bridal showers, and buying the matrimonial bed. Velez’s act of walking away just two days before the actual celebration of their marriage was held by the Court to be “palpably and unjustifiably contrary to good customs” for which he must be held answerable in damages in accordance with Article 21.

Further still, in other cases, the Court cites learned jurists in ruling that moral damages may be recovered in cases of breach of promise to marry where there has been carnal knowledge obtained by way of criminal or moral seduction (Hermosisima vs Court of Appeals, L-14628, 30 September 1960; Estopa vs Piansay Jr., L-14733, 30 September 1960).

Apart from these, the Court is consistent in its declaration that with respect to affairs of the heart, the generally applicable principle is that of volenti non fit injuria: For a willing person, there can be no injury (Batarra vs Marcos, 7 Phil. 56).

The overall import of the rulings suggests that heartbreak borne of the mutability of human affections does not by itself amount to a moral transgression, no matter how deeply or drastically it may cut a trench through one’s psyche. But such a rule lends itself to a greater philosophy, one that accepts and honors life’s ceaseless transformations.

Perhaps love is best articulated by how well one assumes the gamble, and embraces the change of seasons, too. Happy Valentine to everyone!

Email: cabdo@divinalaw.com

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