⦿ CASE SUMMARY OF:
Machine Umudje & Anor v. Shell – BP Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (1975) – SC
⦿ LITE HOLDING
⦿AREA OF LAW
– Law of Torts
– Law of Torts.
Machine Umudje & Anor
Shell – BP Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited
⦿ LEAD JUDGEMENT DELIVERED BY:
* FOR THE APPELLANT
– Chief F.R.A. Williams.
* FOR THE RESPONDENT
⦿ FACT (as relating to the issues)
The plaintiffs’ claim against the defendants as follows for:
(a) the sum of 50,000 pound being fair and reasonable compensation due payable by the defendants to the plaintiffs for the damage done by the defendants, by and through their agents to plaintiffs farm land, fishing ponds, fishing lakes on plaintiffs’ land, known as and called Oto Edefema and IWHREMO BUSH in that the defendants by themselves their servants and or their agents wrongfully and partially blocked the Utefe stream and the original channel or waterway hatched green in the survey plan No. AR 1391, now replaced by the Access Road sometimes in 1969/70 and also the defendants by themselves, their agents or servants caused crude oil and chemicals to escape and sip into plaintiffs’ fishing ponds and lakes from the defendants Location known as EVWRENI LOCATION thereby causing damages to the fishes and hindered fishing cropping in the said lakes and fishing ponds. Defendants have failed refused and or neglected to pay reasonable compensation to the plaintiffs despite repeated demands. (b) Any other reliefs which the justice of the case demands.”
After a review of the evidence before him the learned trial Judge made the following observations: “..I have no doubt in my mind that the access road blocked the passage of water during the flood season, and made it impossible for water and fish to go into the ponds on the right side of the access road during the flood season. It has definitely starved the ponds and lakes of water and fish, notwithstanding the fact that five culverts were erected under the access road … I am inclined to accept their (i.e. respondents’ ) evidence that there was in fact some spillage (i.e. of oil) which did some damage to the fish in the ponds … I believe and accept the evidence of the 1st plaintiff on this point, and find as a fact that the oil spillage killed the fishes left in the pond after the access road had blocked the flow of water and fish into them…”
The learned Judge then found for the respondents in whose favour he made a total award of 7,200 pounds as damages which he described as “being a fair and adequate compensation due and payable to the plaintiffs for the damage caused them by the access road and oil spillage”.
It is from this judgment that the appellants have appealed to this Court.
1. The learned trial Judge erred in law in giving judgment in favour of the plaintiffs for damages when the facts alleged by the said plaintiffs in their evidence cannot support any of the reliefs claimed.
⦿ RESOLUTION OF ISSUE(S)
[APPEAL: DISMISSED, IN PART]
1. GROUND 1 WAS RESOLVED IN FAVOUR OF THE APPELLANT BUT AGAINST THE RESPONDENT.
i. We concede that a claim which asks for “a fair and reasonable compensation” due to the plaintiffs for damage done to the plaintiffs is most inappropriate in an action for damages in tort. Where, however, as in the instant case, it seems clear from the state of the pleadings that although the language of the summons speaks of “compensation” its substance or gist is really a claim for damages in tort, and the claim has gone to trial in the court below on that basis, it is our view that this court ought not in those circumstances to strike out such a claim. “Damages”, after all, have been defined “as the pecuniary compensation which the law awards to a person for the injury he has sustained by reason of the act or default of another, whether that act or default is a breach of contract or a tort;” or put more shortly, “damages are the recompense given by process of law to a person for the wrong that another has done him.”
ii. The expression “damages”, however cannot be regarded as synonymous with “compensation” and, indeed, damages sometimes go beyond compensation; for example where a plaintiff is allowed to recover, by way of damages, much more than his actual loss. We ought, therefore, to sound a note of warning that it is not intended that we should be understood as saying that, in all cases, a claim in this form should be entertained.
iii. With the second arm of Chief Williams’ submission which complains that it is not clear from the form of this claim what, exactly, the respondents’ cause of action is we entirely agree, but the respondents’ case must not be confined to the form of his claim; this court, as did the lower court, must look at the pleadings in order to understand the claim put forward by the parties, and a careful reading of the statement of claim makes it abundantly clear that the respondents’ based their action in both negligence and on the principles of strict or absolute liability under the well-known doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher.
2. GROUND 2 WAS RESOLVED AGAINST THE APPELLANT BUT IN FAVOUR OF THE RESPONDENT.
i. We think that the respondents discharged their obligations and had not only supplied the necessary particulars from which can be seen the duty to the respondents with the breach of which the appellants are charged but also led sufficient evidence in support of the said particulars. Here, the appellants, as the evidence accepted in the lower court undoubtedly shows, had (1) “damed” – as it were – the natural course of the Utefe stream at a point south of Unenurhie land and (2) had interfered with the flow (a) of the stream and (b) of the water during flood season into the said land by failing to provide for adequate flow of the same from underneath the Access Road they had constructed across a quasi-water way of some 5400 feet; they had only provided culverts which allowed an area of less than 10 feet (or just about that much) for the flow of water in an area which, before the construction of the Access Road, had a waterway of over 5000 feet. In the same way the evidence which the learned trial Judge accepted was that oil-waste collected in the location occupied by, or at least in the control of, the appellants, ‘escaped’ (and it is not necessary to show that it did so as a result of negligence) into Unenurhie land where it damaged the respondents’ ponds. The learned trial Judge on the evidence before him accepted the above facts as proved. The questions before us, so far as they are material to the submission of learned counsel are, (1) were the above facts rightly accepted as proved and (2) when applied to accepted and known principles of negligence and the rule in Ryland v. Fletcher, do they justify the award of damages made by the trial court We have already answered the first question in the affirmative.
ii. The position here, as found by the trial court, is that the Access Road blocked the flow of water through the “waterway” or channel and in consequence “definitely starved” the Unenurhie land together with ponds therein of water and fishes. The award of damages, so far as they relate to the appellants’ act in constructing the Access Road cannot, therefore, be sustained under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. We consider, however, that on the facts found and accepted by the trial court the award can be sustained on the principles of negligence. While it is true, as submitted by learned counsel for the appellants that the learned trial Judge failed to make any specific pronouncement on the liability of the appellants vis-a-vis the particulars of negligence given in the respondents’ pleadings, he, however, made relevant and specific findings of fact on the evidence before him; and although the learned Judge failed to make the necessary inference of negligence from those facts this court can, on a proper evaluation of those specific findings of fact, draw the necessary inference of negligence (see Benmax v. Austin Motors Co. Ltd. (1955) 1 AER 326 at p. 328 per Viscount Simon). The trial court found that the “waterway” provided by the five culverts located under the Access Road constructed by the appellants was inadequate – and this must be so when viewed against the background of the former waterway of at least 5000 feet which existed prior to the construction of the Access Road – and that the inadequacy caused the blockade of the passage of water into the Ununerhie land together with the ponds therein which became “starved” of water and fishes, and consequently damaged. The obvious inference and which this court can and has drawn is that the appellants are guilty of negligence.
iii. With reference to the ‘escape’ of oil-waste which respondents claimed had damaged their ponds and lakes, the findings of the learned trial Judge were that crude oil-waste previously collected in a pit burrowed by, and in the control of, the appellants escaped into the adjoining lands of the respondents where it damaged the ponds and lakes in Unenurhie land and killed the fishes therein. As already explained liability on the part of an owner or the person in control of an oil-waste pit, such as the one located at Location E in the case in hand, exists under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher although the ‘escape’ has not occurred as a result of negligence on his part. There is no evidence of any novus actus interveniens in regard to the ‘escape’ of the crude oil-waste, nor is there any evidence that respondents either consented to, or in any way, contributed to the allocation of the crude oil-wask in location E; nor is there any evidence of justification, under any statutory provisions, for collection of the same by the appellants who cannot, therefore avail themselves of any of the exceptions to the rule aforesaid (Rylands v. Fletcher). The appellants are, therefore liable under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, for damages arising from the escape of oil-waste from the oil pit.
⦿ ENDING NOTE BY LEAD JUSTICE – Per
⦿ SOME PROVISION(S)
⦿ RELEVANT CASE(S)
⦿ CASE(S) RELATED
⦿ NOTABLE DICTA