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NIGERIAN NATIONAL PRESS LTD
SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA
11TH JUNE, 1974
(1974) 6 S.C. (REPRINT) 90
BEFORE THEIR LORDSHIPS
IN RE FELIX EGWARE
Mitaire Unurhoro for the Appellant.
Torts Defamation Libel.
Remedies Damages for libel Sufficiency vel non, of amount awarded Quantum of damages Criteria of assessment Status of libellee in society.
COKER, J.S.C. (Delivering the Judgement of the Court): In this matter there is an appeal by the defendant against whom the judgement of the court went as well as an appeal by the plaintiff who won the case and who complains before us that the amount of damages awarded him for libel against the defendant/appellant was insufficient. In the appeal by the defendant there were a number of points referred to in the grounds of appeal filed; but they were all abandoned during the hearing of the appeal and it is not necessary to say more on the appeal than that it completely lacks substance and should be dismissed.
By far more important is the appeal of the plaintiff against the amount of damages awarded him by the learned trial judge. At the trial, the 3rd defendant, who is the defendant/appellant before us, set up the defences of justification and qualified privilege. In addition, this defendant, hereinafter in this judgement referred to as the “defendant” put in issue both the libel complained of by the plaintiff and the social status of the ’plaintiff himself. In deciding on the amount of damages to be awarded to the plaintiff after the trial, and in the course of his judgement, the learned trial judge observed as follows:
“In this case no special damages have been proved, although in law it is assumed that damages flow from the defamation. In assessing the damages I have to put the circumstances of the publication into consideration. There is no doubt that the publication was one which was not only designed to lower the reputation of the plaintiff, but was intended to cause him the forfeiture of his office. The manner of the publication and malice borne out in the evidence of 3rd defendant are matters which are sufficient to remove any protection for 3rd defendant in the award of damages. I am however not satisfied that the plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to entitle him to substantial damages. After giving a careful consideration to all the relevant matters shown in evidence in this case, and the amount of injury to the reputation of the plaintiff as a result of this libel, I am of the view that damages should be assessed at ₤300. There will therefore be judgement for the plaintiff against 3rd defendant for ₤300 with costs assessed at 70 guineas.”
Thus, the learned trial judge awarded the plaintiff an amount of ₤300 (or N600) as damages for the libel which he found that the defendant had committed. The plaintiff, apparently aggrieved by the award, has come before us and complained about its paucity. His ground of appeal reads as follows:
‘That having regard to the amount of damages claimed by the appellant, the findings of fact by the learned trial judge, the amount of injury and damage done to the character and reputation of the appellant and the appellant’s position and standing in the Ozoro Community and in the Midwestern State of Nigeria, the award of ₤300 damages is clearly an erroneous estimate and therefore most inadequate.”
Before us it was argued by learned counsel for the plaintiff that the award was manifestly too small and learned counsel submitted that If the learned trial judge had in fact taken into consideration his own findings about the social status of the plaintiff, the nature of the libel, the design of its publication and the sting with which it was unleased by the defendant he would certainly have awarded more. On the other hand, learned counsel for the defendant submitted that the learned trial judge had fully taken all these circumstances into consideration in quantifying the damages suffered by the plaintiff and that indeed the learned trial judge so stated in the course of his judgement.
We are not oblivious of the principles which are applicable and are indeed applied to appeals on quantum of damages. In Zik’s Press Ltd. v. Alvan lkoku (1951) 13 W.A.C.A. 188, the West African Court of Appeal considered at length these principles and, in the course of its judgement, observed thus at page 189 of the Report:
“But it is equally clear that the appellate courts are very reluctant to exercise this power and to attempt to reassess the amount of damages which the trial judge has given, and that they will never do so unless it can be established that at the trial the judge proceeded upon a wrong principle of law or that his award was clearly an erroneous estimate, since the amount was manifestly too large or too small.”
That case is also authority for the proposition that an appellate court is entitled to Interfere with an award to damages made by a judge where circumstances calling for such interference are shown to the appellate court.
In the present case, the libel complained of by the plaintiff consists in the depiction by the defendant of the plaintiff as a treacherous collaborator with rebels and traitors during the Civil War in this country, and a citizen disloyal to the Government of the country. The defendant admitted publishing this libel and both sought to justify it and to establish that he had published the libel on a privileged occasion. Both defences logically accept the libel and its publication and the essence of the species of defence is that despite their implications the law exempts the libellor from being punished. The defendant failed in both endeavours and commenting on the nature of the libel, the learned trial judge observed in the course of his judgement at follows:
“I am of the view that the entire allegation by 3rd defendant against plaintiff is based on rumour, and realising that the rumour, if true, was capable of removing the plaintiff from his office the 3rd defendant spared no pains in giving that rumour some fertility by his own imagination which culminated in the publication contained in Exhibit ‘B’. The existence of any rumour against the plaintiff being a rebel supporter or sympathiser did not justify the publication of the libellous matter by 3rd defendant to the State House. Assuming that 3rd defendant believed the rumour, it would be no answer to Exhibit ‘f3’ as the facts on which the rumour is based should not only be right, but they should be genuine.”
One of the matters which the learned trial judge was obliged to consider was the social status of the plaintiff. He had pleaded that he is the “Ovie (natural ruler) of Ozoro Clan in Isoko Division of Delta Province in the Mid-Western State of Nigeria”. The defendant put this averment in issue in his own statement of defence; yet, in the course of his evidence, he conceded that the plaintiff “was recognised as the Ovie of Ozoro” during the time when the Action Group Party was in power in the Western Region (which then included the present Mid-Western State). Manifestly, the libel was committed on the plaintiff by one of his own subjects who, for personal reasons, did not voluntarily wish to accept the title of the plaintiff.
We are not aware of other circumstances which the learned trial judge had taken into consideration in arriving at the figure of ₤300, but we are fully of the view that the matters which we have ourselves spotlighted about and concerning this case, if given their proper consideration, are sufficient to support the contention of learned counsel for the plaintiff that the award was manifestly too small. Whatever method of assessment is employed, a great part of the exercise of assessment must be arbitrary but the entire exercise must at all stages have reference to the evidence in the case and the subject matter of the action. Such an award must be adequate to repair the injury to the plaintiff’s reputation which was damaged; the award must be such as would atone for the assault on the plaintiff’s character and pride which were unjustifiably invaded; and it must reflect the reaction of the law to the imprudent and illegal exercise in the course of which the libel was unleashed by the defendant. We think that at least an amount of ₤1,000 (or N2,000) should have been awarded to the plaintiff and that if the defendant thought that a successful plaintiff was establishing circumstances which will escalate an award of damages then it is his duty to give evidence which will arrest that trend. The defendant did nothing of the sort in the present case and we are satisfied that his defence supports the circumstances of aggravation which characterise the plaintiff’s case through and through.
We have concluded that the complaints of the plaintiff on appeal are fully justified and his appeal must and does succeed and it is allowed. The award of ₤300 damages made by the learned trial judge in favour of the plaintiff in Ughelli High Court Suit No. UHC/6/70 is set aside. We order that the amount of damages which the defendant should pay to the plaintiff be N2,000 and this shall be the judgment of the Court. We also order that the defendant shall pay to the plaintiff the costs of this appeal fixed at N160. Our judgment leaves untouched the amount of 70 guineas (or N147) awarded as costs against the defendant in the High Court. This is affirmed. The appeal lodged by the defendant against the judgment of the Ughelli High Court is hereby dismissed but we award no further costs on this.