CASE SUMMARY OF:
Clifford Ebulue & Ors v. Ejiofor Ezebuo (2018) - SC
1. Clifford Ebulue;
2. Ifenyinwa Ebulue;
3. Chukwuka Nnubia;
4. Chidi Nnubia;
1. Ejiofor Ezebuo
Court of Appeal
LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:
Misitura Omodere Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A.
LAWYERS WHO ADVOCATED
* FOR THE APPELLANT
- N. A. Ewuzie;
* FOR THE RESPONDENT
- Ikenna Izuegbulem;
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Bank: Zenith Bank.
Name: Branham Paul Chima.
Account No.: 2178756839.
FACT (as relating to the issues)
All the parties in this appeal are members of Umudioka Village, Okija and they reside in Onitsha. The respondent who was the plaintiff at the Court below alleged that the 1st and 2nd appellants who are husband and wife invited him to their house sometimes in the year 2000 where they requested him to go into a relationship with a widow. He was then a bachelor. When he turned down their request, they alleged that his own mother engaged in such relationship when his father passed away. He confronted his mother with the allegation and his mother did not only deny the allegation, she informed her relatives and kinsmen about the allegation. Her kinsmen approached the father of the 2nd-4th appellants, Ikechukwu Nnubia, the 5th defendant at the Court below who is not a party in this appeal with kola nuts and requested him to invite the 1st and 2nd appellants for explanation on the allegation. The 5th defendant organized the meeting which the 1st and 2nd appellants attended. However, they denied making such comments or allegation against the respondent's mother.
On 1/1/2013, the respondent gave some people including Mrs. Arinze Nnubia a ride in his car from their village to Onitsha. Two of those people were introduced to him as the children of the 2nd appellant. He then told those two boys about the matter between him and their mother and that the matter was still alive. On 2/1/2013, the respondent's brother told him on phone that the 2nd appellant's children reported to the 5th appellant that the respondent threatened to kill the 2nd appellant and her children. On 3/1/2013, he went to the 5th appellant's house on his invitation and narrated what actually transpired between him and 2nd appellant's children. The 5th appellant promised him that he would convince the 1st and 2nd appellants to apologise to the respondent's mother for sake of peace.
However, on 4/1/2013 he was lured into the 5th appellant's compound by the 3rd appellant where he was beaten up, assaulted and imprisoned by the 1st, 3rd, and 4th appellants and handed over to the policemen from Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) who arrested and detained him until he was released on bail to Sir Albert Adilue in his capacity as the President-General of Umudioka Welfare Association who promised to settle the matter since all the parties are from the same village.
The association tried to settle the matter but the appellants refused to acknowledge the authority of the association and refused to abide by its decision. They continued to threaten further assault on the respondent and wrote a petition to the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Zone 9, Umuahia upon which he was charged to Court for assault. He then instituted suit no. HIH/14/2013 in the High Court of Anambra State, Ihiala Judicial Division where in his Further Amended Statement of Claim he claimed against the appellants as follows:
(a) N5,000,000.00 (Five Million Naira) only being general damages for the false imprisonment and assault perpetrated against the plaintiff by the defendants on the 4th day of January, 2013 in the compound of the 5th defendant at Umudioka, Okija.
(b) AN ORDER of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants, their agents, servants and cohorts from further falsely imprisoning (sic) and assaulting the plaintiff in whatsoever manner or way."
The appellants denied the alleged request for sexual relationship with a widow, the meeting called by the 5th appellant and all other allegations made against them. They admitted that the respondent gave the 1st and 2nd appellant's children a ride in his car. They alleged that the respondent told the children to tell the 1st and 2nd appellants that he would kill them. They also admitted that the respondent went to 5th appellant's house on 3/1/2013 on the invitation of the 5th appellant. When he was confronted with the alleged threat issued through 1st and 2nd appellants children, he reiterated that they were rightly informed and that nobody would stop him from killing them. They asserted that the respondent was invited by 3rd appellant to further inquire about the alleged threat to kill the 1st and 2nd appellants and in the ensuing argument, the 1st appellant directed the 4th appellant to invite the police since the 1st and 2nd appellants' lives were in danger. The respondent was neither beaten by anybody nor was the gate locked. They averred that the 1st appellant reported the respondent to the police for threat to his life and 2nd appellant's life. He was arrested on that ground but later allowed to go to enable parties settle the matter. The appellants counter claimed against the respondent for N5,000,000.00 (Five Million) being general damages arising from the assertion of the respondent to kill the 1st and 2nd appellants.
The Court below after hearing both parties and their witnesses delivered its judgment on 20/12/2013 wherein the Court granted the respondent's claim in its entirety and dismissed the appellants' counter claim with N100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) costs in favour of the respondent.
Dissatisfied with the judgment, the appellants filed a notice of appeal containing 12 (twelve) grounds of appeal on 8/11/14.
1. Was the Court below right in the findings it made accepting as proved that 1st, 3rd and 4th appellants beat, assaulted and detained the respondent.
2. Whether the damages and cost awarded are not in themselves excessive in all the circumstances of this case.
3. Whether the learned trial judge was right in dismissing the 1st and 2nd appellants' counter claim in this suit having regard to the evidence adduced in this case.
HOLDING & RATIO DECIDENDI
[APPEAL: APPEAL ALLOWED IN PART]
1. THE Court of Appeal HELD AGAINST THE APPELLANT AND IN FAVOUR OF THE RESPONDENT.
i. The Court of Appeal relied on the trial court's decision: "The pith and substance of the plaintiff's case is that all of the defendants conspired to beat him up. In his petition to the police he mentioned all five of them as those that beat him up. From his evidence, there is no question that he was beaten up and detained in the 5th defendant's house until the police men arrived to take him away. It is however not clear whether the 2nd and 5th defendants actually joined in beating him. I have no doubt in mind however that the 1st, 3rd and 4th defendants beat him up and detained him. That being so I find as a fact that on the 4th of January, 2013, the 1st, 3rd and 4th defendants assaulted the plaintiff in the compound of the 5th defendant at Okija. Thereafter, they detained him in the same premises against his will until the police arrived to take him away. I therefore find them liable for assault and false imprisonment of the plaintiff."
ii. False imprisonment is an act of restraining or restricting or confining the movement of a person within an area without lawful or legal authority or justification. It is an unlawful act for a private person or a law enforcement agency or any governmental agency to restrict the movement or exit of a person from an area against his will without any lawful justification. See CLIFFORD OKEKE V. LUSY IGBOERI (2010) LPELR 4712 (CA). UAC OF (NIG.) PLC V. SOBODU (2007) 6 NWLR (PT. 1030) 368 AT 394 (E-F). OTERI V. OKORODUDU & ANOR. (1970) LPELR 2824 (SC). The appellant not only beat up the respondent, he was prevented from leaving their compound until the police arrived. Thus the appellants resulted to self help which they had no right to do. For the above reasons, I resolve issue 1 in favour of the respondent.
2. The Court of Appeal held "There is no doubt that the respondent suffered some indignity and humiliation as a result of the attack on him coupled with the lack of remorse on the part of DW1 as found by the Court below. There is therefore the need to teach the 1st, 2nd, and 4th appellants a lesson that self help in form of assault and false imprisonment attract a form of liability in form of damages as compensation to the victim. However, considering the value and the purchasing power of our national currency in 2013 and now, the fact that the respondent did not give evidence of his so called standing in the village and the fact that the false imprisonment was for about 20 minutes, I am of the view that the award of N5,000,000.00 was excessive. A sum of N500,000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira) is awarded against the 1st, 2nd and 4th appellants as damages for the assault and false imprisonment of the respondent by the 1st, 2nd and 4th appellants on 4/1/2013 in the compound of Ikechukwu Nnubia."
i. In the instant case, the 1st, 3rd and 4th appellants had no authority either statutory or otherwise to beat up or assault and detain the respondent in their compound. Any unlawful attack or application of force or violence to the person of a claimant with or without actual injury constitutes assault for which the claimant is entitled to damages in a civil action.
ii. In the instant case, the respondent was lured into the 5th defendant's compound, where he was physically assaulted and detained for about twenty (20) minutes before the arrival of the police. The incident attracted some villagers to the scene. All these were taken into consideration by the Court including the conduct of the 1st appellant (DW1) at the trial. All these were taken into consideration by the Court including the conduct of the 1st appellant (DW1) at the trial. The Court held as follows at pages 220 -221 of the record of appeal: "On the issue of damages, it is clear that the 1st, 3rd and 4th defendants knew quite well that they had no justification for beating up the plaintiff the way they did. In addition, they restricted his movement until the police they invited arrived. If they felt that they had been defamed by the plaintiff, they could have resorted to due process of law instead of self help. By resorting to self help as they had done, they had opened themselves up to liability. The plaintiff has claimed the sum of N5,000,000 as damages. The first defendant who testified as the DW1 did not show any remorse at all. He considered the Court as a platform to disparage the plaintiff. He resorted to all forms of lying to mislead the Court. The sum of N5,000,000 claimed by the plaintiff should sufficiently restore his dignity and place him in the position he would have been but for the assault and false imprisonment."
3. ISSUE 3 WAS JUDGED AGAINST THE APPELLANT AND IN FAVOUR OF THE RESPONDENT. THE Court of Appeal relied on the dictum of the trial court: "The threats issued to the PW2 to PW4 in the absence of the 1st and 2nd defendants do not constitute assault on the 1st and 2nd defendants. I have found that 1st defendant who testified as D.W.1. is not a truthful witness. His evidence is unreliable and does not deserve any form of credibility. It follows that no probative value could be ascribed to his evidence that the plaintiff threatened to kill him and 2nd defendant. Consequently the counter claim has not been made out. It fails and thereby dismissed."
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The law is trite that evaluation and ascription of probative value to the evidence led at the trial Court is the primary function of the trial judge who had the singular advantage of hearing and watching the witnesses when they testify. Where the trial Court has performed its primary duty of evaluating and ascribing probative value to the evidence led, the appellate Court has no business of evaluating the evidence or interfering with the finding(s) of the trial Court. The appellate Court can only intervene in the interest of justice where it is shown that the trial Court has not properly discharged its duty or utilize the advantage of having seen and hearing the witnesses testify and as a result of which it has made perverse findings which has occasioned a miscarriage of justice. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
It is settled that a finding will be regarded as being perverse when the Court takes into consideration matters which it ought not to consider or when it ignores the relevant facts or evidence or the finding is against the weight of evidence or when the Court wrongly applied the law to the established and accept fact(s) or when the findings by its nature has occasioned a miscarriage of justice. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
I have myself perused the record of appeal, the finding of the Court below is amply supported by the evidence on record. In one breath, he said the respondent was invited to the 5th defendant's house. In another breadth he said he sent 4th appellant to invite the police because the respondent was beating him and his wife in the 5th defendant's house. Yet again he admitted that he told the Magistrate Court that the respondent beat him (DW1) in front of his (the respondent's) house and pursued him into 5th respondent's house. Yet again he said, the respondent tried to slap him in front of his house and he used his hand to block him. The respondent started shouting and his mother tried to restrain him. According to him, his wife then entered the 5th defendant's compound. He admitted that the respondent did not pursue him and his wife into the 5th defendant's house. It was about 5 minutes later that the respondent and his mother arrived in the compound. In his statement, he stated that the argument which ensued when the respondent entered the compound which in any case was on the invitation of the 3rd appellant did not attract the villagers only to turn round and stated that when the respondent was beating his wife, all he could do was to raise alarm which attracted several people into the compound. The entire evidence of DW1 shows that he is a man who tells lies with ease and at will. The Court below was on a very firm ground when it held that apart from his name, everything DW1 told the court about the incident are lies. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
False imprisonment is an act of restraining or restricting or confining the movement of a person within an area without lawful or legal authority or justification. It is an unlawful act for a private person or a law enforcement agency or any governmental agency to restrict the movement or exit of a person from an area against his will without any lawful justification. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
The law is settled that an appellate Court will not interfere with an award of damages by a trial Court unless the appellant satisfies the Court that the trial Court acted upon a wrong principle of law or that the amount awarded is excessive or too low. See S.P.D.C. (NIG.) LTD v. TIEBO VII (2005) 9 NWLR (PT. 931) 439 AT 464 (C - E), 467 (F - G) - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
Assault and false imprisonment constitute trespass to the person. Unlawful or false imprisonment is a strict liability tort. Once a claimant establishes a case of false imprisonment, the onus is on the defendant to establish lawful authority to arrest or detain restrict the movement of the claimant. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
In assessing general damages for imprisonment and assault, the Court shall consider the entire facts and circumstances disclosed by the evidence led including the length or duration of detention or deprivation of liberty, injury to the plaintiff's feelings, that is mental suffering, disgrace and humiliation suffered as a result of the false imprisonment and the defendant's conduct up to and including conduct at the trial. Substantial damages may be recovered by a plaintiff for assault with or without technical battery which has cause him no physical injury at all. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
I will be stating the obvious by saying that it is illegal to threaten to kill someone. A threat to kill someone would definitely put some fear of harm or bodily injury into that person. Anyone whose life is threatened or receives a threat to kill has both criminal and civil remedies. The criminal remedy is activated by making a report to the police or any other relevant law enforcement agency. A civil remedy can be pursued by fundamental right enforcement proceedings. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
In today's world where people get killed by unimaginable means, waiting for an overt act of an attempt to kill or exhibition of weapons or materials capable of effecting murder or killing the appellant may sometimes be too late. Any serious verbal threat to kill should not be ignored. I agree that a mere verbal threat to kill probably uttered in the heat of the moment or a row may not be enough in order to succeed in a civil action on threat to life. In addition, the claimant must show that the threat was directly uttered or delivered to him. In my view, a threat to kill delivered to a 3rd person and relayed to the claimant cannot sustain a civil action for threat to life. - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
The law is settled that award of costs is at the discretion of the Court which discretion must be exercised judicially and judiciously. Where the Court has properly exercised that discretion taking into consideration the relevant facts and circumstances in determining what is reasonable costs in the particular case, the exercise of discretion will not be questioned . - Bola Ji-yusuff, J.C.A. EBULUE v. EJIOFOR (2018)
The end of this brief.
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