Rule 18 of the Rules of Court leaves no room for equivocation; appearance of parties and their counsel at the pre-trial conference, along with the filing of a corresponding pre-trial brief, is mandatory, nay, their duty. Thus, Section 4 and Section 6 thereof provide:
SEC. 4. Appearance of parties.–It shall be the duty of the parties and their counsel to appear at the pre-trial. The non-appearance of a party may be excused only if a valid cause is shown therefor or if a representative shall appear in his behalf fully authorized in writing to enter into an amicable settlement, to submit to alternative modes of dispute resolution, and to enter into stipulations or admissions of facts and documents.
SEC. 6. Pre-trial brief.–The parties shall file with the court and serve on the adverse party, in such manner as shall ensure their receipt thereof at least three (3) days before the date of the pre-trial, their respective pre-trial briefs which shall contain, among others:
x x x x
Failure to file the pre-trial brief shall have the same effect as failure to appear at the pre-trial.
Contrary to the foregoing rules, petitioner and its counsel of record were not present at the scheduled pre-trial conference. Worse, they did not file a pre-trial brief. Their non-appearance cannot be excused as Section 4, in relation to Section 6, allows only two exceptions: (1) a valid excuse; and (2) appearance of a representative on behalf of a party who is fully authorized in writing to enter into an amicable settlement, to submit to alternative modes of dispute resolution, and to enter into stipulations or admissions of facts and documents.
Petitioner is adamant and harps on the fact that November 28, 2003 was merely the first scheduled date for the pre-trial conference, and a certain Atty. Mejia appeared on its behalf. However, its assertion is belied by its own admission that, on said date, this Atty. Mejia “did not have in his possession the Special Power of Attorney issued by petitioner’s Board of Directors.”
As pointed out by the CA, petitioner, through Atty. Lee, received the notice of pre-trial on October 27, 2003, thirty-two (32) days prior to the scheduled conference. In that span of time, Atty. Lee, who was charged with the duty of notifying petitioner of the scheduled pre-trial conference, petitioner, and Atty. Mejia should have discussed which lawyer would appear at the pre-trial conference with petitioner, armed with the appropriate authority therefor. Sadly, petitioner failed to comply with not just one rule; it also did not proffer a reason why it likewise failed to file a pre-trial brief. In all, petitioner has not shown any persuasive reason why it should be exempt from abiding by the rules.
The appearance of Atty. Mejia at the pre-trial conference, without a pre-trial brief and with only his bare allegation that he is counsel for petitioner, was correctly rejected by the trial court. Accordingly, the trial court, as affirmed by the appellate court, did not err in allowing respondent to present evidence ex-parte.
Former Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa’s words continue to resonate, thus:
Everyone knows that a pre-trial in civil actions is mandatory, and has been so since January 1, 1964. Yet to this day its place in the scheme of things is not fully appreciated, and it receives but perfunctory treatment in many courts. Some courts consider it a mere technicality, serving no useful purpose save perhaps, occasionally to furnish ground for non-suiting the plaintiff, or declaring a defendant in default, or, wistfully, to bring about a compromise. The pre-trial device is not thus put to full use. Hence, it has failed in the main to accomplish the chief objective for it: the simplification, abbreviation and expedition of the trial, if not indeed its dispensation. This is a great pity, because the objective is attainable, and with not much difficulty, if the device were more intelligently and extensively handled.
x x x x
Consistently with the mandatory character of the pre-trial, the Rules oblige not only the lawyers but the parties as well to appear for this purpose before the Court, and when a party “fails to appear at a pre-trial conference (he) may be non-suited or considered as in default.” The obligation “to appear” denotes not simply the personal appearance, or the mere physical presentation by a party of one’s self, but connotes as importantly, preparedness to go into the different subject assigned by law to a pre-trial. And in those instances where a party may not himself be present at the pre-trial, and another person substitutes for him, or his lawyer undertakes to appear not only as an attorney but in substitution of the client’s person, it is imperative for that representative of the lawyer to have “special authority” to make such substantive agreements as only the client otherwise has capacity to make. That “special authority” should ordinarily be in writing or at the very least be “duly established by evidence other than the self-serving assertion of counsel (or the proclaimed representative) himself.” Without that special authority, the lawyer or representative cannot be deemed capacitated to appear in place of the party; hence, it will be considered that the latter has failed to put in an appearance at all, and he [must] therefore “be non-suited or considered as in default,” notwithstanding his lawyer’s or delegate’s presence.
We are not unmindful that defendant’s (petitioner’s) preclusion from presenting evidence during trial does not automatically result in a judgment in favor of plaintiff (respondent). The plaintiff must still substantiate the allegations in its complaint. Otherwise, it would be inutile to continue with the plaintiff’s presentation of evidence each time the defendant is declared in default.
In this case, respondent substantiated the allegations in its complaint, i.e., a contract of necessary deposit existed between the insured See and petitioner. On this score, we find no error in the following disquisition of the appellate court:
[The] records also reveal that upon arrival at the City Garden Hotel, See gave notice to the doorman and parking attendant of the said hotel, x x x Justimbaste, about his Vitara when he entrusted its ignition key to the latter. x x x Justimbaste issued a valet parking customer claim stub to See, parked the Vitara at the Equitable PCI Bank parking area, and placed the ignition key inside a safety key box while See proceeded to the hotel lobby to check in. The Equitable PCI Bank parking area became an annex of City Garden Hotel when the management of the said bank allowed the parking of the vehicles of hotel guests thereat in the evening after banking hours.
Article 1962, in relation to Article 1998, of the Civil Code defines a contract of deposit and a necessary deposit made by persons in hotels or inns:
Art. 1962. A deposit is constituted from the moment a person receives a thing belonging to another, with the obligation of safely keeping it and returning the same. If the safekeeping of the thing delivered is not the principal purpose of the contract, there is no deposit but some other contract.
Art. 1998. The deposit of effects made by travelers in hotels or inns shall also be regarded as necessary. The keepers of hotels or inns shall be responsible for them as depositaries, provided that notice was given to them, or to their employees, of the effects brought by the guests and that, on the part of the latter, they take the precautions which said hotel-keepers or their substitutes advised relative to the care and vigilance of their effects.
Plainly, from the facts found by the lower courts, the insured See deposited his vehicle for safekeeping with petitioner, through the latter’s employee, Justimbaste. In turn, Justimbaste issued a claim stub to See. Thus, the contract of deposit was perfected from See’s delivery, when he handed over to Justimbaste the keys to his vehicle, which Justimbaste received with the obligation of safely keeping and returning it. Ultimately, petitioner is liable for the loss of See’s vehicle.