Breach of Contract and Admiralty Jurisdiction

MR. FRANCIS OBI IROEGBU

                                        V

1.      MV CALABAR CARRIER

2.     MV BONNY CARRIER

3.     MV LOLITA CHOUEST

4.     MV MISS REECE

5.     CHIEF EDISON CHOUEST JR

Facts:

The Appellant filed an action in rem against the five respondents on the 19th day of January 2004.

Upon a motion ex parte, the appellant caused the 1st-4th respondent to be arrested and detained pending the production by the respondents of a first class bank guarantee from a reputable bank in Nigeria. Having failed to comply with the said condition the 1st-4th respondent remained under detention

The respondent eventually filed a motion on noticeupon which the trial court pronounced ruling on the 3rd of June, 2004, releasing the unconditionallythe 1st-4th respondent.

The reason for the release as stated in the ruling is that the appellant’s claims are not maritime claims which can be commenced by an action in rem. Accordingly, the ex parte order of the court, made on the 20th day of January, 2004 was discharged. The 1st-4th respondent were ordered to be released immediately unconditionally from the arrest and detention ordered by the court.

The appellant was aggrieved and he appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Judgment

1.     To successfully bring the suit of the appellant within the provision of section 2(3)f) of the Admiralty jurisdiction Act, the appellant must state clearly the nature of usage he put the vessel to. Equally, the injury caused to him by the vessel must be clearly spelt out. Short of these, the admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal High court cannot be invoked (refer per Oguegbu, JSC in Rhein Mass v Rivway Lines Ltd (1998) 5 NWLR (pt. 549) page 265.

2.     Several nations set up special courts to administer maritime related cases otherwise known as admiralty jurisdiction. In Nigeria, the Federal High Court is conferred with this special jurisdiction under the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act of 1991.

3.     Sections 2 and 18 of the AJA have respectively enlarged the scope of maritime lien-in the enactment of statutory right in rem under which ships and vessels can be saddled with the liabilities of their owners, charterers or operators and these liabilities ‘travel’ with the vessels until made good, or they become statute-barred by the effluxion of time. Section 18(1)(b) of the AJA allows a maximum period of three years. Only maritime cases enjoy the lien

4.     The application of section 2(3)f) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act requires that the claim before the trial court must have arisen out of an agreement either in respect of carriage of goods or persons by ship or the use or hire of a ship whether or not by a charter-party

5.  It is difficult to haul into the admiralty jurisdiction, the suit of the appellant which seeks damages for the breach of a contract between himself and Alpha Marine Company solely owned by him and the 5th respondent. The appellant has not established that he either hired the service of the 1st-4th respondent nor had they hired his services.

6.     By section 251(1)(p) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, action for breach of contract simpliciter does not fall within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal High Court.

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