⦿ CASE SUMMARY OF:
National Electric Power Authority v. Chief Etim Inameti (2001) – CA
⦿ LITE HOLDING
It is settled law that a defamatory publication is a publication calculated to lower the person in the estimation of right-thinking men or cause him to be shunned or avoided or to expose him to hatred, contempt or ridicule or to convey an imputation on him disparaging or injurious to him in his office, profession, calling, trade or business. The test in determining whether or not the words complained of are defamatory in their natural or ordinary meaning is whether under the circumstances a reasonable man to whom the publication was made would be likely to understand it in a libellous sense.
⦿AREA OF LAW
– Law of Torts.
National Electric Power Authority
Chief Etim Inameti
(2001) JELR 52398 (CA)
Court of Appeal
⦿ LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:
* FOR THE APPELLANT
* FOR THE RESPONDENT
⦿ FACT (as relating to the issues)
The plaintiff, aged 72, is a pensioner having retired from government service as a Senior Accountant. He resides at No. 13 Inyang Street, Calabar where an electric meter is installed and maintained for the purpose of recording energy consumed at the aforesaid residence. Since the year 1972, the plaintiff had been a customer of the defendant authority a public body which generates and supplies electricity to numerous consumers including the plaintiff. The business relationship between the parties had been cordial over the years until about November, 1993 when, as reflected in the plaintiff’s electricity bill of that month, the meter regarding which had in the past been recording figures in four digits showed figures in five digits. Thus in the said bill of November 1993, the meter reading as recorded was 71212 instead of 7121 indicating the consumption of 64,243 units of electricity instead of 152 and the consequential inflated cost of N12,500.00 instead of N34.00.
It is the plaintiff’s case that upon noticing these anomalies or irregularities he wrote protest letters – exhibits 1, 2 and 3 to the defendant and these were followed by his solicitor’s letter to the defendant, exhibit 4. Despite these protest letters, the defendant continued to send to the plaintiff electricity bills computed on the basis of the figures from the meter reading with the result that in the May 1994 bill, exhibit 7 and April 1995 bill – exhibit 13, the amounts shown to be due for payment as arrears were N28,982.54k and N24,206.04 respectively.
To avoid disconnection of energy supply from his residence, the plaintiff paid piecemeal small amounts on the bills presented the receipts of which payments were acknowledged on the bills – exhibits 5 to 11. The plaintiff contends that he was in no way indebted to the defendant as falsely represented in the May 1994 and April 1995 – exhibits 7 and 13 which he described as scandalous and defamatory of his character. It is his further contention that the publication of the defendant’s scandalous bills to various agencies including his (plaintiff’s) boyhood friend, one Etinyin Etubom Essien Ita (PW2) was intended and has been understood to represent him (plaintiff) as grossly irresponsible and not fit to command the respect he enjoys in the eyes of right-thinking members of the society.
This appeal raises a rather novel question as to whether an electricity bill showing arrears of cost of electricity used by a consumer is libellous of that customer. This issue arose, in a suit No. C/305/95 dated 14th June, 1995 filed at the Calabar High Court wherein the respondent herein as plaintiff sought against the defendant therein, now appellant reliefs set out in the writ of summons and paragraph 13 of the statement of claim as follows:-
(1) N200,000.00 (Two hundred thousand naira) damages for the defamation of the plaintiff’s character by reason of the malicious publication of scandalous bills against the plaintiff in spite of repeated protests and warnings from the plaintiff.
(2) Perpetual injunction restraining the defendant by itself or through its agents or servants howsoever from publishing any further scandalous bills against the plaintiff.
At the conclusion of the plaintiff’s case followed by an address of his counsel, the learned trial Judge, O Ita J., as he then was, in a reserved judgment delivered on 16th January, 1997 entered judgment in favour of the plaintiff in terms of his claims. In challenge of that judgment, the defendant as appellant has lodged the instant appeal.
1. Whether the alleged defamatory statement, that is, the scandalous electricity bills, exhibits 7 and 13 were defamatory of the respondent and if so, whether there was publication thereof in law?
⦿ RESOLUTION OF ISSUE(S)
1. ISSUE 1 WAS RESOLVED AGAINST THE APPELLANT BUT IN FAVOUR OF THE RESPONDENT.
i. It seems evident from paragraph 10 of the statement of claim supra, that the defamatory statements complained of are contained in the electricity bills, exhibits 7 and 13 issued by the appellant to the respondent for the periods stated. It was not expressly pleaded the precise words in those bills which are defamatory of the respondent. In an action for libel, a plaintiff must of necessity rely on the precise words alleged to be a libel for it is upon the perusal of the actual words complained of that the court may determine A whether or not the words convey a defamatory meaning and that being the case, the words complained of are essential for the prosecution of the plaintiff’s case and are therefore material facts which must be pleaded:- See Okafor v. Ikeanyi (supra).
ii. The bills exhibits 7 and 13 are in the form of the type of the uniform electricity bills sent to every customer. They contain words and figures, printed, typewritten and handwritten with the statement that to avoid disconnection the respondent should pay N28,982.54 as per exhibit 7 and N24,206.04 vide exhibit 13. If these are the alleged defamatory statements complained of, it is my judgment that in their ordinary and natural meaning they are not defamatory of the respondent and from any analysis of the evidence of PW2 the innuendo placed on those statements had not been established.
iii. The evidence ofpublication to the members of the respondent’s family is therefore no publication in law more so as no member of the respondent’s family testified to any such publication. The respondent also testified that apparently due to his old age, he settled his electricity bills through agents and PW2 claimed that in January 1995 when he went to the appellant’s office he saw the electricity bills in question in the hand of the respondent’s agent and the question that calls for consideration is whether there is in law publication to PW2 in the circumstances.
iv. In my humble view, the respondent in the circumstances of this case was not under a duty to send the bills in question to other persons. He willingly caused the electricity bills to be published to PW2 through his agent. On the principle qui per alium facet, her seipsum facere videtur (he who does anything by another is deemed to have done it himself), publication was by respondent himself and therefore the publication was not actionable.
⦿ ENDING NOTE BY LEAD JUSTICE – Per
⦿ SOME PROVISION(S)
⦿ RELEVANT CASE(S)
In the case of Dumbo v. Idugboe (1983) 1 SCNLR 29 at 48 is as follows: “In deciding whether words are capable of conveying defamatory meaning, the court will reject the meaning which can only emerge as the product of some strained or forced or utterly unreasonable interpretation (per Lord Morris in Jones v. Skelton (1963) 1 NLR 1370. The test of reasonableness guides and directs the court in its function of deciding whether it is open to a jury in any particular case to hold that reasonable persons would understand the words complained of in a defamatory sense. In determining whether the words are capable of a defamatory meaning, the Judge will construe the words according to the fair and natural meaning which would be given them by reasonable persons of ordinary intelligence and will not consider what persons setting themselves to work to deduce some unusual meaning might succeed in extracting from them. The test according to Lord Selborne is “whether under the circumstances in which the writing was published, reasonable men to whom the publication was made would be likely to understand them in a libellous sense.”
⦿ CASE(S) RELATED
⦿ NOTABLE DICTA
No doubt, in the practice of brief writing, it is an elementary principle that issues formulated for determination in a brief must arise from and be related to the grounds of appeal. Any issue not supported by a ground of appeal is incompetent and ought to be discountenanced. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
It is my considered view that appellant’s issue No. 1 is distilled from grounds 1 and 2 of the grounds of appeal. It is not the practice that an issue should be distilled from each ground of appeal. Rather, several related grounds of appeal are combined to raise an issue for determination. The ideal is to formulate an issue as encompassing more than one ground of appeal. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
A defamatory statement is one which has a tendency to injure the reputation of the person to whom it refers which tends to lower him in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally and in particular to cause himto be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, disdain or disesteem. The onus on the plaintiff in an action for libel is to prove that the defendant published in permanent form a statement, that the statement referred to him, that the statement was defamatory of him in the sense that it lowered him in the estimation of right-thinking members of the society, or it exposed him to hatred, ridicule or contempt or it injured his reputation in his office, trade or profession or his financial credit. In other words an imputation to be defamatory will have to be proved to have been to the discredit of the plaintiff. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
In action involving libel, the position of the law is that the question whether the words complained of are infact defamatory of the plaintiff is a matter for the jury and it is for the Judge to decide on the evidence adduced in support of the complaint whether they are capable of referring to the plaintiff as well as capable of conveying defamatory meaning in the minds of reasonable persons in the circumstances of the particular case. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
The question as to whether the words complained of are in their natural and ordinary meaning defamatory is one of fact. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
With all due deference to the learned Judge of the court below, the mere fact that the appellant did not defend the suit is no reason for him to accept hook-line and sinker the case of the respondent. In a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden to make out a prima facie case before the burden shifts on the defendant to rebut and his failure to do so may lead to the dismissal of his case without the consideration of the defendant’s case for generally a plaintiff must succeed on the strength of his case and not on the weakness of the defence. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
Where there is no basis for the belief or where surrounding circumstances are such as clearly negative the truth, an appellate court would not accept its finding merely because the trial Judge used the words “I believe”. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
It is settled law that in order to succeed in an action for defamation, the plaintiff must prove that the libel or slander has been published. Publication means the making known of defamatory matter to some person other than the person of whom it is written or spoken. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
The law is that the award of damages by a trial court can only be upset by an appellate court if it feels that the trial court acted on wrong principles of law or that the amount awarded by the trial court is extremely high or low. The appellate court ought not to upset the award of damages by a trial court merely because if it had tried the matter it would have awarded a lesser amount. – Edozie JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)
The test whether the words in question are defamatory is objective. – Opene JCA. NEPA v. Inameti (2001)