KUPOLATI V. MTN (NIG.) COMMS. LTD: On whether the court can be bound by the previous decision to exercise its discretion
CITATION: 13 NWLR PT.1740 PG.. 2
Courtesy: Moruff O. Balogun Esq.
Summary of Facts:
The appellant, a legal practitioner, was a post-paid customer of the respondent on his GSM line No. 0803-720-0757. The appellant claimed that the respondent breached its contractual obligations to him when, for a cumulative period of thirty-one days, it blocked/ disconnected the GSM line without any justification and that consequently, he suffered enormous frustration, hardship, inconveniences, loss of income and economic loss.
He instituted an action against the respondent at the High Court of Lagos State seeking a declaration that the blocking/disconnection of the GSM line by the respondent without justification was wrongful and a breach of the respondent’s contractual obligation it owed him as a post-paid subscriber of the respondent’s network services; and a declaration that the blocking/disconnection of the line without justification foisted on him enormous frustration, hardship, inconveniences, loss of income and economic loss for which he ought to be assuaged by substantial award of general and exemplary damages. He also claimed the sum of N50.00.000.00 as general and exemplary damages.
After conclusion of hearing, the trial court in its judgment held that the respondent was in breach of its contract with the appellant when it blocked/disconnected the GSM line. It then awarded the sum of N1, 000,000.00 as general damages but refused the claim for exemplary damages.
Aggrieved by the quantum of general damages awarded by the trial court, the appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal
Held: (Unanimously allowing the appeal):
The following issues were raised and determined by the court of appeal.
On whether the court can be bound by the previous decision to exercise its discretion:
Judicial discretion is a vital tool in the administration of justice. It is a sacred power which inures to a Judge. It is an armour which the Judge employs judicially and judiciously in order to arrive at a just decision. In matters of judicial discretion, since the facts of two cases are not always the same, courts do not make it a practice to lay down rules and principles that would fetter the exercise of its discretion or the discretion of a lower court. This is because in matters of discretion, no one case is an authority for the other. A court cannot be bound by a previous decision to exercise its discretion in a regimented way because that would be putting an end to discretion. No hard and fast rules can be laid down as to the exercise of judicial discretion by a court. The moment that is done, the discretion is fettered. In the instant case, for the Court of Appeal to accede to the appellant’s contention to willy-nilly assess the quantum of damages in the manner done in the cases he relied upon would be to fetter the discretion of the court since facts are the fountainhead of law and the facts of the cases are not the same as the facts of the instant case.
On when appellate court will not interfere with exercise of discretion by trial court-
The fact that an appellate court would have exercised its discretion differently from that of the trial court is not sufficient reason to interfere with the exercise of discretion by the trial court. The appellate court will not interfere with the exercise of discretion in the absence of proof that it was wrongly exercised.
On when appellate court will interfere with award damages by trial court-
The fact that the quantum of damages is at the discretion of the court does not mean that there are no circumstances when an appellate court would interfere with the award of damages. An appellate court will interfere with the award of damages by a trial court in situations which include:
- where the court acted under wrong principles of laws;
- where the court acted in disregard of applicable principles of law;
- where the court acted in misapprehension of facts;
- where the court took into consideration irrelevant matters and disregarded relevant matter while considering its award;
- where injustice will result if the appellate court does not act;
- Where the amount awarded is ridiculously low or ridiculously high that it must have been an erroneous estimate of the damages.
In the instant case, the trial court acted under wrong principles of law and in disregard of applicable principles which did not place any burden on the appellant to specifically plead and prove general damages. It was on account of this that it took irrelevant matters of proof of general damages into consideration and disregarded the relevant matters that general damages need not be specifically proved and awarded as damages an amount which was ridiculously low, thus lucently showing that it was an erroneous estimate of the damages. The Court of Appeal therefore interfered with the damages awarded in order to obviate the injustice.
On Nature of general damages and quantum need be pleaded and proved-
General damages are always made as a claim at large. The quantum needs not be pleaded and proved.
The award is quantified by what, in the opinion of a reasonable person, is considered adequate loss or inconvenience which flows naturally, as generally presumed by law, from the act of the defendant. It does not depend upon calculation made and figure arrived at from specific items. The issue of award of damages in any given case is a matter based on the discretion of the trial court. In other words, the assessment of the quantum of general damages is at the discretion of the court.
General damages need not be specifically pleaded and proved before the same can be awarded by the court. They are awarded to assuage a loss caused by an act of the adversary. In other words, general damages are the kind of damage which the law presumes to be the consequence of the act complained of and, unlike special damages, a claim for general damages does not need to be specifically pleaded and specially proved by evidence.
On Need for court to consider evidence on record in assessment of damages-
In considering the appropriate assessment of damages and what would be considered adequate in the opinion of a reasonable person, due regard must be had to the evidence on record. In the instant case, the evidence showed that the appellant, a legal practitioner of twenty-five years post-call experience at the time of the incident, had his GSM line wrongfully disconnected by the respondent in breach of contract as a result of which he suffered frustration, hardship and inconvenience for a cumulative period of thirty-one days.
On whether court can re-formulate issues for determination formulated by parties-
A court can and is entitled to re-formulate issues formulated by the parties or counsel in order to make for precision and clarity. The purpose of framing or re-framing an issue or issues is to lead to a more judicious and proper determination of an appeal and to narrow the issue or issues in controversy in the interest of accuracy, clarity and brevity.
Moruff O. Balogun Esq.