BENSON V. MOBIL PRODUCING NIG UNLIMITED
This summary is fully reported at (2014) 3 CLRN.
COURT OF APPEAL (PORT HARCOURT DIVISION)
(MUHAMMAD; GALINJE; AWOTOYE, JJ.CA)
In January 1998, the Appellant’s fishing nets were severely damaged when the Respondent’s oil pipeline installation burst and spilled oil into the waterways where the Appellant and others in the Bayelsa Community fished.
The Appellant claimed that the Respondent had agreed to compensate the victims whose nets were damaged by paying N10,000.00 (Ten Thousand Naira) per bundle of damaged fishing nets but that antithetically, the Respondent paid him N10,000 (Ten Thousand Naira) for the 600,000 (Six Hundred Thousand) bundles of nets that were damaged.
In spite of repeated demands by the Appellant, the Respondent failed to pay further sums as compensation for the destroyed fishing nets. Accordingly, the Appellant commenced an action at the High Court of Bayelsa State and claimed the sum of N599,999,990 (Five Hundred and Ninety Nine Million, Nine Hundred and Ninety Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Naira) as special damages for the destruction of 599,999 (Five Hundred and Ninety Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Nine) bundles of fishing nets at N10,000.00 (Ten Thousand Naira) per bundle of fishing net by the Respondent.
Relying on section 16 of the Limitation Law of Bayelsa State, the Respondent objected to the suit on the grounds that the Appellant’s action was statute barred having been commenced more than six years after the cause of action accrued.
In its ruling on the Respondent’s objection, the trial court held that the Limitation Law of Bayelsa State applied and dismissed the suit. Dissatisfied, the Appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The singular issue that emerged for the determination of the Court of Appeal as formulated by the Appellant was:
"Whether the plaintiff’s (now appellant’s) action is statute barred either by the provision of Bayelsa State Limitation Law Cap. 18 Laws of Bayelsa State or the Limitation Act of 1623."
In arguing this issue, the Appellant contended that the Bayelsa State Limitation Law being a State Law could not apply to matters within the exclusive list neither can items 38 and 39 in the 2nd Schedule and section 251(1)(n) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 be interpreted in subordination to any state law. Similarly, he submitted that the Limitation Act of 1623 is also inapplicable.
He submitted that the decision of the lower court which was reached by relying on the case of Etim v. IGP was attained in error. Instead, he relied on the judgment of the court in Eboigbe v NNPC and urged the Court of Appeal to remit the case back to the trail court by allowing his appeal.
On the contrary, the Respondent referred to the case of Etim v. IGP and submitted that in that case, the Federal High Court applied the Limitation Law of Kaduna State to a Federal matter.
Further, it relied on section 44 of the Bayelsa State Limitation Law, the doctrine laid down by the Court of Appeal in RCC (NIG) Ltd. v. Buratto and the Supreme Court case of Egboigbe v. NNPC in concluding that the case was statute barred and that the Limitation Act of 1623 applied. It urged the Court of Appeal to dismiss the appeal.
The Court of Appeal having found that the right of action of the Appellant was created by section 19 of the Oil Pipelines Act 1990 which is a law made by the National Assembly and was therefore indefeasible by the state limitation law, allowed the appeal and remitted the case to be tried afresh by the high court.
The Court of Appeal held as follows:
“Now the right of action of the plaintiffs/appellants was created by section 19 of the Oil Pipelines Act 1990 which reads.
‘19. If there be any dispute as to whether any compensation is payable under any provision of this Act or if so as the amount thereof, or as to the persons to whom such compensationshould be paid, such dispute shall be determined by a magistrate exercising civil jurisdiction in the area concerned if such magistrate has in respect of any other civil matter monetary jurisdiction of at least as much as the amount of compensation claimed and if there be no such magistrate by the high court exercising jurisdiction in the area concerned and, notwithstanding the provisions of any other Act or Law, in respect of the decision of a magistrate in accordance with this secti on there shall be an appeal to the High Cour t of the State and in respect of a decision of the High Court of the State under this section, whether original or appellate, there shall be an appeal to the Court of Appeal.
Provided that nothing in this Act shall be deemed to confer power upon a magistrate to exercise jurisdiction in a matter raising any issue as to the title to land or as to the title to any interest in land.’
…It appears to me also that a state law limiting the right created by a Federal law is in conflict with the Federal law.
Section 4(5) of the 1999 Constitution is clear on this. It States:
‘If any law enacted by the House of Assembly of a State is inconsistent with any law validlymade by the National Assembly the law made by the National Assembly shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.’
The Oil Pipeline Act is a Federal Law. The Bayelsa State Limitation Law seeks to curtail the exercise of the right of action created by the Oil Pipeline Act. This certainly is unconstitutional and the Bayelsa State Limitation Law cannot be so interpreted. See A.G. Abia State v. A.G. Federation (2002) 6 NWLR (Pt. 763) 264. I therefore hold that the Bayelsa State Limitation law does not apply.”
Babatunde Sodipo with Olusola Olarewaju for the Respondent
This summary is fully reported at (2014) 3 CLRN
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