Filipino journalists

Verdict in crash that killed journalist Chit Estella is ‘justice no matter how slow’

Jairo Bolledo

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Verdict in crash that killed journalist Chit Estella is ‘justice no matter how slow’

JUSTICE. Photo of late journalist and UP professor Lourdes "Chit" Estella-Simbulan.

Justice for Chit Estella-Simbulan Facebook page

Chit Estella's husband, political scientist Roland Simbulan, has formed the advocacy group Families of Road Victims and Survivors

It took 13 years before the court reached its decision on the 2011 vehicle crash that killed journalist and University of the Philippines (UP) journalism professor Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan.

In a decision dated April 24, but was only recently made public, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 83 Presiding Judge Ralph Lee found the suspects, bus drivers Daniel Espinosa and Victor Ancheta, guilty beyond reasonable doubt of reckless imprudence resulting in damage to property with homicide. The judge sentenced the suspects to two years, four months, and one day of imprisonment.

Aside from jail time, the suspects have been ordered to pay Estella’s husband, Roland Simbulan, more than P5 million. In case of insolvency, or the suspects’ lack of ability to pay the amount, the court ordered the registered owners of the bus lines Universal Guiding Star Bus Line Corporation and Nova Auto Transport Bus Corporation to instead pay Simbulan the following:

  • P145,165 – expenses for Chit’s wake and burial
  • P3,500,508.35 – Chit’s total income computed from the date she died, up to her supposed retirement at age 65 as assistant professor II, with salary grade 19-1
  • P2,000,000 – moral damages
  • P2,000,000 – exemplary damages
  • Attorney’s fees and costs of suit

Estella was riding a taxi on her way to a reunion with friends when a bus hit her taxi along Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City, on May 13, 2011. It was said that the bus drivers were racing to get more passengers. The journalist was rushed to a hospital, but was declared dead on arrival.

“I think there is [justice] eventually, no matter how slow it was. Kasi, for a while, I thought that the case would never be resolved…. Tapos hindi ko na nga mabibilang kung ilang hearing siya [umabot] (because for a while, I thought that the case would never be resolved. And I cannot really count how many hearings it took),” Roland told Rappler on Wednesday, May 15.

According to a report by VERA Files, which Estella co-founded, the case took over a decade to resolve because of the accused changed lawyers several times, a Supreme Court probe of the judge hearing the case, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Simbulan, the judge ruled accordingly based on the existing laws. He said the drivers already expressed regret about the crash that caused his wife’s untimely passing.

The ruling

Presiding Judge Lee, in explaining his decision, said all elements of reckless imprudence resulting in damage to property with homicide were present in the case. He said the prosecution was able to establish the elements beyond reasonable doubt.

The judge explained that the accident happened in two stages. The first stage happened when the Nova bus “recklessly driven” by Ancheta hit and bumped the taxi where Estella was onboard. After it was hit, the taxi veered towards the path of the Daewoo bus driven by Espinosa.

At the second stage, the Daewoo bus slammed the rear part of the taxi. The judge said Espinosa was “driving his bus at a fast pace before it collided the rear end portion of the Abu Abbey taxi.” This led to Estella being pinned at the back seat. She died of traumatic head injuries.

The judge said Espinosa and Ancheta’s recklessness was the “proximate cause” of the incident, which was the direct reason of Estella’s death. The judge said both drivers could have avoided the collision if they only exercised “reasonable care and precaution.”

“Both of the accused being public utility drivers should have primary concern not just for their safety but also [for] their passengers and fellow motorists. Daniel Espinosa y Oyanin and Victor Ancheta y Lobosin should exercise extraordinary care through driving at a reasonable rate of speed as this would enable them to keep their respective vehicles under control and avoid injury to others and damage to properties,” the judge said.

In the decision, the Presiding Judge Lee also honored the late journalist and educator: “Above all, this Court recognizes the immense contributions of the late University of the Philippines Professor Lourdes Estella-Simbulan as one of the country’s premier academicians and journalists.”

Who is Chit?

During the early years of the Martial Law, Estella was a journalism student at UP, according to her profile published by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation. The organization honored the late journalist in 2016 for her contributions in the fight against tyranny.

When she was a sophomore student, Estella joined UP’s official student publication, the Philippine Collegian. The Bantayog Foundation said she was part of the paper’s news section that exposed then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ corruption and human rights abuses.

Later, Estella became president of the UP Journalism Club. While in her senior year, she wrote for the underground press, like Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas, Taliba ng Bayan, and the Liberation. She used the nom de guerre “Ka Sandy.”

After graduating in 1979, Estella applied for Marcos crony-controlled publications, but she was rejected because of her stories critical of the dictatorship. She later worked for the National Secretariat for Social Action of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Estella later wrote for Pahayagang Malaya, Mr. and Ms., and the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Estella became managing editor of Gokongwei-owned Manila Times, from which she resigned when the owners apologized to then-president Joseph Estrada over a story. After that, she served as founding editor in chief of the political tabloid Pinoy Times, whose reporting contributed to the movement to oust Estrada. She helped establish Vera Files and taught at the UP College of Mass Communication.

In partnership with VERA Files, the UP Journalism Department gives the Chit Estella Student Journalism Awards during the annual Philippine Journalism Research Conference. The PJRC is a “journalism conference that recognizes student excellence in academic research, investigative journalism, special projects, and photojournalism.”

Demand for change

A year after his wife’s passing, in 2012, Simbulan formed the advocacy group Families of Road Victims and Survivors, where people with experience with road crashes support each other. Aside from being a support group, the organization also pushes for the passing of laws that will improve road safety. After Estella’s death, authorities imposed a 60-kilometer speed limit along Commonwealth Avenue.

More than a decade later, and even after the court’s verdict, Simbulan’s advocacy for safer roads remains.

Roland believes there’s no such thing as an accident. Neglect, either on the part of drivers or the people who should ensure the good condition of vehicles, are among the reasons car crashes occur.

There’s also failure on the part of the authorities, especially in the enforcement of laws, because some drivers still manage to get licenses despite their bad records at the Land Transportation Office, Simbulan explained.

“‘Yong problema ‘yong enforcement, ‘yong implementation, because the authorities either get bribed or are not strict about those laws. So in the process, paulit-ulit na nangyayari ‘yong road incidents, ‘no? Because of lack of enforcement,” Roland said.

(The problem is enforcement of the laws, the implementation, because the authorities either get bribed or are not strict about those laws. So, in the process, road incidents keep on happening, right? Because of lack of enforcement.) –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.