Distinguishing a Simple Contract from an Admiralty Matter.

TSKJ (NIG.) LIMITED

                V

OTOCHEM NIGERIA LIMITED

Facts:

The respondent commenced suit No: PHC/1414/98 against the appellant at the High Court of Rivers State, in Port Harcourt Judicial Division. The appellant had issued a Local Purchase Order (LPO) to the respondent for the supply of a houseboat for the temporary use of its staff. The terms and condition of the contract were spelt out in the LPO, after the houseboat was delivered; the appellant requested that it be upgraded to European executive standard. Pursuant to the request, the respondent alleged that it carried out further modifications; however the appellant refused and or neglected to settle the respondent’s bill. The respondent contended that the houseboat remained in the appellant’s possession for a period of 148 days before it was forced to retake possession thereof.

The claim of the respondent were as follows

a)     N14, 800 000.00 (Fourteen Million Eight Hundred Thousand Naira Only) representing hire rentals for 148 days (26th March, 1997-20th August 1997 inclusive).

b)    N12, 000,000.00 (Twelve Million Naira only) Special damages.

c)     N40,000.000.00 (Forty Million Naira only) general damages

The appellant denied the respondent’s claim and contended that it did not take delivery of the houseboat. At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the respondent. The appellant appealed to the Court of appeal which allowed the appeal in part by setting aside the award of N12, 000,000.00 (Twelve Million Naira only) Special damages.

 The appellants further appealed to the Supreme Court and also raised the issue of Jurisdiction for the first time. It contended that the claim of the respondent fell within the admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal High Court which robbed the High Court of Rivers State of Jurisdiction to entertain the Claim.

 Judgment

Jurisdiction is a threshold issue which can be raised for the first time in the Supreme Court.

The fact that the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, Cap 5 Laws of Federation of Nigeria, 2004, defines a ship in section 26 thereof as a vessel of any kind used or constructed for use in Navigation  by water, however it is propelled or moved and includes a barge, lighter or other floating vessel, cannot convert an agreement for hire of house boat into an admiralty agreement. In the instant case, the simple contract of debt recovery was within the civil Jurisdiction of the High Court of Rivers State and it properly assumed Jurisdiction on the matter.

The mere fact that a ship is involved in a simple contract does not automatically make that simple contract a subject for jurisdiction in admiralty matters. In the instant case, the action instituted by the respondent before the High Court of Rivers State was for the recovery of accrued but unpaid hire rentals for the houseboat let by the respondent to the appellant and damages for breach of the contract simpliciter. It was a case of simple contract, which was within the civil Jurisdiction of the High Court of Rivers State.

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