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What Determines a Liquidated Money Demand under Nigeria’s Undefended List Procedure?

posted 4 years ago

In the Supreme Court
case of Joseph Uzor & Anor and Daewoo Nig. Limited (SC. 251/2008)
delivered on 25th January 2019, the central issue was whether the
Court of Appeal was right in finding that the trial Court had no jurisdiction
to entertain the suit on the grounds that the writ of summons sought for
reliefs other than liquidated money demand alone.

Brief
facts of case

The Appellant (Mr
Joseph Uzor) was retained by the Respondent (Daewoo Nig. Limited) to submit 2
volumes of House Boat Drawings/Designs for 100 Offshore Personnel of the
Respondent. M. Y. W. Chung, the Project Manager of the Respondent, in a letter
dated 26th June 1994, acknowledged receipt of the drawings and
stated that the boat construction contract will be awarded to the Appellant but
in case of delay or failure, the Appellant will be paid the cost of the
Drawings/Designs and paid adequate compensation.

When the contract was
not awarded to the Appellant, his Legal Practitioner wrote a demand letter to
Mr Chung demanding for the cost of the drawings. In response to the demand
letter, Mr Chung apologised for unduly assaulting the human and personal character
of the Appellant through the use of foul language on him. He then undertook to
pay the Appellant the sum of N 700, 000 (Seven Hundred Thousand naira) for 2
volumes of the House Boat Designs and the sum of N 500, 000 (Five Hundred
Thousand naira) being general damages. The sum of N 1, 000, 000 (One Million
naira) for undue assassination of the Appellant’s character and the sum of N
50, 000 (Fifty) Thousand naira for personal injuries on the Appellant. Mr Chung
also directed that the total amount of N 2, 250, 000 (“the total sum”) could be picked up at the Respondent’s Port
Harcourt office on 29th March 1996.

Case
at the trial Court

Upon failure of
Respondent to pay the Appellant the total sum, the Appellant commenced an
action under undefended list procedure of the High Court of Cross River State
to recover the total sum plus the sum of N 500, 000 (Five Hundred Thousand
naira) for unauthorised transfer and passing-off of the Appellant’s House Boat
Drawings and Designs which amounts to N 2, 750, 000 (“the claimed sum”) as liquidated sums.

The trial Court entered
Judgment on 24th February 1997 for the claimed sum with interest
till payment is effected.

Case
at the Court of Appeal

Dissatisfied with the
judgment, the Respondent appealed to the Court of Appeal and the Court allowed
the appeal and set aside the judgment of the trial Court. The basis for the
decision of the Court of Appeal is that a writ of summon which contained
reliefs for assault, character assassination, personal injuries, delay and
breach of contract, unauthorised transfer and passing-off can be said to be a
claim to recover a liquidated sum.

Arguments
at the Supreme Court

The
Appellant

The Appellant contended
that contrary to the decision of the Court of Appeal there was no evidence
where the Appellant indicated that its claims were based on assault rather the
Respondent agreed to pay a liquidated sum of money to the Appellant and the
suit was instituted to recover the agreed sum which sum was confirmed by Mr
Chung’s letter. The Court of Appeal was therefore wrong to disregard this
important piece of evidence.

The Appellant further
contended that he had complied with the rules of Court for the matter to be
heard under the undefended list procedure and the Court of Appeal ought to have
interpreted and applied the law accordingly. Mr Chung’s letter speaks for
itself and cannot speak through the testimony of witnesses or any argument put
forward. The wordings of the letter operated to confer jurisdiction on the
trial court as per the liquidated claim.

The Appellant concluded
that the Court of Appeal misunderstood the case put forward at the trial court
and ignored the letter of apology of Mr Chung which gave rise to the suit.
Since the Court of Appeal took an erroneous view of the case, its findings were
perverse as such the Supreme Court should interfere and reverse the decision.

The
Respondent

In response, the
Respondent contended that the claim before the trial court was not for
liquidated money demand and could not have been validly brought under the
undefended list procedure. The action was not for the agreed sum. The claims of
the Appellant as endorsed on the writ of summons necessitated the taking of
evidence to proof the damages he suffered to enable the court to assess the
quantum of damages. The Appellant ought to establish that he has a character
that has been assassinated and the damages thereof.

The Respondent
contended that the condition precedent to invoke the jurisdiction of the trial
court was not fulfilled and therefore the Court was not competent to entertain
the suit under the undefended list. Since the Federal High Court is vested with
the sole jurisdiction over matters related to passing-off, the trial Court
lacked jurisdiction to hear and determine the Appellant’s claim for passing off
which was endorsed on the writ.  The
Respondent urged the Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal because the
Appellant’s claim did not constitute claims for recovery of debts or liquidated
money demand. 

The
Judgment of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court found
that the nature of debt envisaged by the rules of Court must be monetary debt
or liquidated money demand. This procedure applies throughout Nigeria except
Lagos. In most State, the procedure is available in respect of claims to recover
a debt or liquidated sum of money.

The Court also found
that 2 key issues are central under the rules. First, the amount claimed and
second, that there is no defence to the claim. The Court of Appeal should have
averted its attention to the letter of apology written by the Respondent which
speaks for itself. The letter states the object, the nature and the admitted
specific sums which the Appellant claimed before the trial Court. The letter
even gave a pick up date of the total sum.

The Supreme Court opined
that had the Court of Appeal averted its mind to the far reaching letter of
apology, it would have come to a different conclusion. The Respondent clearly
defaulted to honour its own undertaking. As such beyond the needless resort to
technicalities, the amount is a liquidated demand for which the Appellant had
justifiable reason to pursue under the undefended list procedure.

The Court found that
the Respondent attempt to impeach the judgment of the trial Court was flawed
because it is the actual claims that confers jurisdiction. The claim bordered
on admitted debt and failure of the Respondent to honour its own letter and
undertaking. The Court of Appeal erred in law in its decision that the trial
Court had no jurisdiction to hear the suit under the undefended list procedure.
The judgment of the trial Court was restored and allowed in part. The Court
ordered the Respondent to pay the claimed sum which does the sum of N 500, 000 (Five Hundred Thousand naira)
for passing off which the trial Court does not have jurisdiction to entertain.

Conclusion

From the foregoing, it
is clear that the cause of action which culminated to an admitted or liquidated
sum is immaterial for a matter to be brought under the undefended list
procedure. The pertinent question is, is there any evidence for a liquidated
money demand? If the answer is in the affirmative, then the claimant can
institute an action under the relevant rules to recover the liquidated sum
under the undefended list procedure.

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