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Employment relationship: Linchpin in the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court

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Scale of Justice. Photo/Sealchambers

Dencia Services Ltd. V. Azunna (2018) LPELR-46043 (CA)
IN THE COURT OF APPEAL
(LAGOS JUDICIAL DIVISION)
ON THURSDAY, THE 6TH DAY OF DECEMBER, 2018
BEFORE THEIR LORDSHIP

JOSEPH SHAGBAOR IKYEGH J.C.A
UGOCHUKWU ANTHONY OGAKWU J.C.A
TOBI EBIOWEI J.C.A
Suit No: CA/L/444/2018
Between
DENCA SERVICES LIMITED APPELLANT (S)
And
MR. NNAMDI AZUNNA RESPONDENT (S)
LEAD JUDGMENT DELIVERED BY UGOCHUKWU ANTHONY OGAKWU

FACTS OF THE CASE: 

The Respondent is a member of The Nigerian Legion. The Nigerian Legion posted him to work as a security man at Ekulo Group of Companies Limited warehouse at Plot 2, Acme Crescent, Agidingbi, Ikeja.

While so engaged as a security man, a trailer belonging to the Appellant came to the warehouse of Ekulo Group of Companies Limited to offload some goods.

In the process of pushing the gate open for the trailer to leave the premises, the trailer hit the Respondent and he was injured on his leg.

Consequent upon this, the Respondent instituted proceedings against the Appellant and The Nigeria Legion at the National Industrial Court, claiming the following reliefs:

a. The sum of N30, 000 000 (Thirty Million Naira) awarded against the 1st Defendant only as GENERAL DAMAGES for the injury, pain, agony, suffering, deformity caused to the Claimant as a result of its driver’s negligent and careless driving.

b. The sum of N10, 000 000 (Ten Million Naira) awarded against the 2ND Defendant only as GENERAL DAMAGES for the breach of contract of employment and lack of concern over its staff’s injury, pain, agony, suffering, deformity caused by the 1st Defendant’s staff to the Claimant while in course of his employment for the benefit of the 2nd Defendant.

c. The sum of N30, 000 (Thirty Thousand Naira) as Claimant’s monthly salaries owed by the 2nd Defendant from August 2013 till date.

d. The cost of this suit.”

Upon being served with the Court processes, the Appellant filed a preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the Court to entertain the action upon the ground that the principal relief claimed was for alleged vicarious liability for negligence which was outside the jurisdiction conferred on the Court by Section 254C (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), and that no contractual relationship exists between the Appellant and the Respondent.

The Court took argument on the preliminary objection and in a ruling, dismissed the same. Dissatisfied, appellant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

ISSUE (S) FOR DETERMINATION: 

The issue, which the Court found apt for the determination of the appeal, is:
“Whether the lower Court was right in holding that it has jurisdiction to entertain the Respondent’s action against the Appellant.”

PARTIES’ ARGUMENTS

The Appellant’s counsel submitted that jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court is conferred by Section 254C (1) of the Constitution (as amended).

That the said Section 254C(1) gives the National Industrial Court exclusive jurisdiction over issues relating to labour, trade unions, all labour and employment issues and industrial relations and matters connected therewith. However, it was stated that Section 254C

(1) of the Constitution cannot be invoked to confer jurisdiction on the National Industrial Court where, as in this case, a labour and employment relationship does not exist between the Appellant and the Respondent.

The Appellant further argued that it is the claim before the Court that determines the jurisdiction of the Court and that since the principal claim of the Respondent is for general damages for injury occasioned as a result of the negligent and careless driving of the Appellant’s driver and particularly in the absence of employer/employee relationship between the Appellant and the Respondent, the National Industrial Court lacked jurisdiction to determine the suit. 

It is the further submission of the Appellant that the absence of Ekulo Group of Companies as a party to the suit impaired the jurisdiction of the National Industrial Court.

On the Respondent’s part, it was submitted that by Section 254C (1) (a)-(m) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the lower Court has exclusive jurisdiction in civil causes and matters relating to or connected with and incidental to employment, matters arising from workplace, welfare of workers and matters incidental thereto or connected therewith.

It was opined that the Respondent, having been on duty when the injury occurred, was at his workplace and consequently, that the National Industrial Court, by Section 254C (1) of the Constitution has jurisdiction to hear the suit.

The Respondent conclusively, in respect of the non-joinder of the Ekulo Group of Companies as a party to the suit, submitted that the National Industrial Court being imbued with jurisdiction, could suo motu, in exercise of discretion take steps that will enhance equity, justice and fair play in any suit before it by ordering the joinder of necessary parties in order to avoid multiplicity of actions and abuse of process. The case of ODUOLA vs. COKER (1981) LPELR – 2254 SC at 44 was called in aid.

COURT’S FINDINGS

The Court reiterated that in considering whether a Court has jurisdiction to entertain a matter, it has to be borne in mind that jurisdiction of a Court is not assumed, but must be based on the provisions of a statute and the Court proceeded to talk on the concept of jurisdiction of a Court.

The Court affirmed that while it cannot be confuted that the lower Court has jurisdiction to entertain causes of action which arise in the course of an employment relationship, even when occasioned by negligence; the determinant of whether jurisdiction is imbued is a factor of the existence of an employment relationship between the parties.

That is, the hub on which the entire jurisdiction revolves is the existence of the employment relationship, irrespective of whether the cause of action relates to or is connected with labour, trade union and industrial relations matters, and notwithstanding whether it is a matter that arises from the workplace in respect of conditions of service, health safety, welfare and matters incidental thereto and connected therewith. 

Consequently, that unless there is an employment relationship between the parties, the cause of action will not be cognizable under the exclusive jurisdiction conferred on the lower Court under Section 254 C (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. 

The Court further reiterated that it is the claimant’s claim that determines the jurisdiction of the Court and that in the instant appeal; the claim is for the alleged negligent conduct of the Appellant’s servant in managing the Appellant’s trailer which occasioned injury to the Respondent.

The Court pointed out that the Respondent is not an employee of the Appellant and neither did the injury occasioned to the Respondent take place in the Appellant’s premises but at the premises of Ekulo Group of Companies with whom the Respondent also had no employer/employee relationship.

As a result, the injury allegedly suffered by the Respondent as a result of the negligent conduct of the Appellants driver cannot fall within the jurisdiction of the lower Court.

HELD

The appeal succeeds. The Appellant’s name was struck out from SUIT NO NICN/LA/158/2017 pending at the National Industrial Court and the decision of the National Industrial Court delivered on 19th February 2018 to the extent that it upheld its jurisdiction to entertain the cause of action against the Appellant was set aside.

The action is to continue at the National Industrial Court against the 2nd Defendant on record at the National Industrial Court. Conclusively, the parties are to bear their respective costs of this appeal.

Appearances:

J. O. Mbamalu, Esq. with him F. J. Ajemere, Esq. & Miss O. F. Ohuakanwa For Appellant(s) 
Gabriel Orban, Esq. For Respondent(s)

COMPILED BY LAW PAVILION


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