Legalpedia Electronic Citation:  legalpedia SC. 118/2009
Areas Of Law:
Admiralty, Appeal, Court, Jurisdiction, Law Of Contract, Practice And Procedure
Summary Of Facts:
The Plaintiff/Respondent is an incorporated Limited Liability Company which carries on the business of marine construction and equipment leasing whilst the Defendant/Appellant is also Limited Liability Company. The Plaintiff/Respondent instituted an action at the High Court of Rivers State, claiming the sum of N14,800,000.00 (Fourteen Million, Eight Hundred Thousand Naira only) representing hire rentals for 148 days (26th March, 1997 – 20th August 1997 inclusive),N12,000,000.00 (Twelve Million Naira Only) and N40,000,000.00 (Forty Million Naira only) being special damages and general damages respectively.
It was the case of the Respondent at the trial court that sometime in February 1997; it entered into a contract with the Appellant for the supply of a houseboat for the temporary use of its staff. It was allegedly agreed that the Appellant would make an advance payment of N6, 288,000.00 representing the rental value at the rate of N100, 000 per day for two months as well as the cost of transporting the houseboat from Warri to Bonny. Certain modifications were also to be made to the boat before delivery. It was contended that the terms and conditions of the contract were spelt out in a Local Purchase Order (LPO) issued by the Appellant to the Respondent.
The Respondent claimed that after the houseboat was delivered, the Appellant requested that it be upgraded to European executive standard. Pursuant to this request the Respondent alleged that it carried out further modifications to the boat at a cost of N12m. Upon completion of the modifications however, the Appellant refused and/or neglected to settle the Respondent’s bill. The Respondent contended that the houseboat remained in the Appellant’s possession for a period of 148 days before it was forced to retake possession thereof.
The Appellant on the other hand, denied the Respondent’s claims and contended that it did not take delivery of the houseboat because the Respondent failed to meet the delivery deadline and also because it did not meet the required standard hence, the action instituted by the Respondent against the Appellant.
At the conclusion of the trial, the learned trial judge entered judgment in favour of the Plaintiff/Respondent for a total sum of N32, 088,000.00. Dissatisfied with the trial court’s judgement, the Appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal which allowed the appeal in part and set aside the part of the trial court’s judgment awarding the sum of N 12m to the Respondent as special damages. Dissatisfied further, the Appellant has lodged the instant appeal before this court urging the court to strike out the appeal as the Respondent’s claim falls within the exclusive admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal High Court.
Issues For Determination
Ø Whether the High Court of Rivers State has the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the suit number PHC/1414/98
Ø Whether the Court of Appeal properly considered and evaluated the evidence adduced in the case before reaching the conclusion that there was a 1 valid and enforceable contract between the parties?
JURISDICTION OF COURT – DETERMINATION OF JURISDICTION OF COURT
“I am in complete agreement with the correct statement of the law as stated by the learned counsel for the respondent. This court has already held that it is only on careful examination of the pleadings filed by the parties in a cause or matter namely the statement of claim not the defence that the court can ascertain whether or not the court has jurisdiction. See: Trade Bank Plc v. Banilux (Nigeria) Ltd. (2003) 5 SC 1.” PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
JURISDICTION OF COURT – FACTORS THE COURT SHOULD CONSIDER IN DETERMINING THE JURISDICTION OF COURT
“My lords, in determining jurisdiction of a court, we should always remember to consider two important determinants or factors which confer jurisdiction on a court:
a) the constitution or statute or law that creates the court and;
b) the nature of the case/suit/claims giving rise to the subject matter for litigation.” – PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
JURISDICTION OF COURTS – EXTENT OF THE JURISDICTION OF STATE HIGH COURTS IN CIVIL PROCEEDINGS
“Jurisdiction of any state High Court and the Federal High Court is donated by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). In relation to a State High Court, Section 272 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides:
Subject to the provisions of Section 251 and other provisions of this constitution, the High Court of a state shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any civil proceedings in which the existence or extent of a legal right, power, duty, liability, privilege, interest, obligation or claim is in issue.
Thus, a State High Court has a very wide civil jurisdiction on almost all civil matters, except where it has been limited/restricted by the constitution or any other statute.” PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
JURISDICTION OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT – JURISDICTION OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT ON ADMIRALTY MATTERS
“On the other hand, Section 251 of the same Constitution provided for the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court including admiralty matters. It states:
251(1) Not withstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Constitution and in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly, the Federal High Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court in civil causes and matters-
(g) any admiralty jurisdiction, including shipping and navigation on the River Niger or River Benue and their affluents and on such other inland water way as may be designated by any enactment to be an international waterway, all Federal Ports, (including the Constitution and powers of the port authorities for Federal ports) and carriage by sea.”– PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
JURISDICTION OF COURT- WHETHER AN AGREEMENT FOR THE HIRE OF A HOUSEBOAT FALLS UNDER THE ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT
“The fact that the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 1991, Cap. A5 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, defines a ship (Section 26 thereof) as a vessel of any kind used or however it is propelled or moved and includes a large, lighter or other floating vessel, cannot, in my view, convert an agreement for hire of houseboat into an admiralty agreement. The mere fact that a ship is involved in a simple contract does not automatically make that simple contract a subject for jurisdiction in admiralty matters. To hold to that supposition will be ridiculous. See: Texaco Overseas Nigeria Petroleum Company Unlimited v. Pedmar Nigeria Ltd (2002) 7 SC (Pt.11) 222; American International Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Ceekay Traders Ltd. (1981) 5 SC.81.” PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE – WHETHER IT IS THE DUTY OF AN APPELLATE COURT TO EVALUATE EVIDENCE AND ASCRIBE PROBATIVE VALUE THERETO
“Permit me, my lords, to draw attention from the outset in this issue that it is not the business of the court below (unless in exceptional circumstances) to evaluate and thus, ascribe probative value to evidence. That is the whole mark of the trial court that heard, saw, observed and ascribed probative value to evidence through witnesses. The only assignment expected of an appeal court (in an appeal) is to review, among other things, the evidence and the whole proceedings of the trial court.” PER I. T. MUHAMMAD, J.S.C.
JURISDICTION OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT – WHETHER THE MERE FACT THAT A HOUSEBOAT IS INVOLVED IN A SIMPLE CONTRACT AUTOMATICALLY MAKES THE SIMPLE CONTRACT A SUBJECT OF ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION
“The law is very well settled beyond any argument that the jurisdiction of a court is determined by the nature of claim before it. See Tukur vs Govt. of Gongola State (1989) 4 NWLR (Pt. 17) 517. In Onuora vs KRPC (2005) 6 NWLR (Pt. 921) 393 at 405 Paragraph 5 A – D, this court held as follows:-
“A close examination of the additional jurisdiction conferred on the Federal High Court in the section and by the 1979 Constitution clearly shows that the court was not conferred with jurisdiction to entertain claims founded on contract as in the instant case.
In other words, Section 230(1) provides a limitation to the general and all-embracing jurisdiction of the State High Court because the items listed under the said Section 230(1) can only be determined exclusively by the Federal High Court All other items not included in the list would therefore still be within the jurisdiction of the State High Court
In the instant case, since disputes founded on contracts are not among those included in the additional jurisdiction conferred on the Federal High Court that court therefore had no jurisdiction to entertain the appellant’s claim. The lower court therefore acted rightly in its decision that the Federal High Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the claim.” See Seven-Up Bottling Co. Ltd vs Abiola & Sons Bottling Co. Ltd (2010) 13 NWLR (Pt. 730) 469: Trade Bank Plc vs Benilux (Nig) Ltd. (2003) 9 NWLR (Pt. 825) 416 at 430 & 431. Section 230(1) of the 1979 Constitution is the same as Section 251(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In Adelekan vs ECU-Line Nv (2006) 12 NWLR (Pt. 993) 33 at 52, in a lead judgement delivered by Onnoghen JSC (as he then was) held:-
“The provisions of Section 251 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, hereinafter called the 1999 Constitution are very clear and unambiguous. It is the section that confers jurisdiction on the Federal High Court, which jurisdiction clearly does not include dealing with any case of simple contract or damages for negligence as envisaged by the action before the trial court”
The mere fact that a houseboat is involved in a simple contract does not automatically make the simple contract a subject of admiralty jurisdiction. See Texaco Overseas Nigeria Petroleum Company Unlimited vs Pedmar Nigeria Ltd (2002) 7 SC (Pt. 11) 222″. PER P. A. GALINJE, J.S.C.
EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE – INSTANCE WHERE AN APPELLATE COURT WILL INTERFERE WITH THE FINDINGS OF A TRIAL COURT
“For the second issue, assessment of evidence and ascription of probative value to such evidence is the primary duty of a tribunal of trial and a Court of Appeal can only interfere if the trial tribunal has performed badly in that area. In the instant case, the Court of Appeal had no business interfering with the function of the trial court. See Eki vs Giwa (1977) 11 NSCC 96: Fashanu vs Adekoya (1974) 1 ALL NLR (Pt. 1) 35.” PER P. A. GALINJE, J.S.C.
Statutes Referred To:
Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 1991, Cap. A5 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004
Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)
Exclusive and Concurrent Legislative Lists by virtue of the Regional Courts (Federal Jurisdiction) Act Cap 177 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1958
To Get Access to Read the Full Judgement, Click on the Button Below