Whether a Driver Can Be Held Liable for Passenger’s Failure to Fasten Seatbelt

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CASE TITLE: FEDERAL ROAD SAFETY COMMISSION & ORS v. BARR. OSUOBENI EKOI AKPOS (2021) LPELR- 52917(CA)

JUDGMENT DATE:      9TH FEBRUARY, 2021

JUSTICES:

  • PETER OLABISI IGE, JCA
  • YARGATA BYENCHIT NIMPAR, JCA
  • MOHAMMED BABA IDRIS, JCA

COURT DIVISION:       ABUJA

PRACTICE AREA:              Government Agency- Federal Road Safety Commission

FACTS:

The Respondent was accosted by the officers of the Federal Road Safety Commission while he was in transit on the 1st of June, 2012. The Road Safety officers demanded for his vehicle papers which he presented to them and the officials returned same to him after finding them up to date. However, as the person who was sitting in the passenger seat was alighting from the vehicle, the officials claimed he did not have his seat belt fastened on and despite his explanation to the contrary, they demanded for the Respondent’s vehicle documents a second time.

While he was trying to present the papers, one of the FRSC officers snatched them from him and in the process tore the particulars. This caused the Respondent to introduce himself as a lawyer, which only infuriated the officers more. They then forced him back into the car and took him to their office where they deflated the tyres, impounded the car and again started beating him for disobeying an officer on duty.

The Respondent subsequently commenced an action against the Appellants via a Writ of Summons, claiming against the Appellants for a declaration that the continuous seizure of the Respondent’s Honda Rover car at the FRSC office by the Appellants amounts to detinue in law, an Order of Court commanding the Appellants to release the car unconditionally to the Respondent, the sum of Fifty Million Naira as general damages for detinue and the sum of Two Million Naira as cost of litigation.

The High Court found against the Appellants and granted the reliefs sought by the Respondent.

Dissatisfied with the decision of the trial High Court, the Appellants appealed.

ISSUE(S) FOR DETERMINATION:

The appeal was determined upon consideration of the following issues:

  1. Does the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory have jurisdiction to entertain relating to the impoundment and detention of his car by Appellants as the act of impounding of his vehicle is an administrative act of the 1st Appellant, which is an agency of the Federal Government of Nigeria?
  2. Was the trial Court right in holding that there was no basis for the issuance of Notice of Offence sheet on the Respondent notwithstanding that Regulation 58(4) of National Road Traffic Regulation, 2004 made pursuant to Section 5(1) of Federal Road Safety Commission (Establishment) Act, 2007 placed the duty on the driver of a vehicle to ensure that all passengers in the vehicle have their seat-belts firmly fitted while the vehicle is in motion?
  3. Assuming without conceding the trial Court had jurisdiction to entertain the suit, was the trial Court right in granting the damages of N5 Million as damages for tort of detinue against the Appellants.
  4. From the evidence placed before the trial Court by the Respondent, was the trial Court right in awarding the sum of N1 Million for assault and battery (“merciless beating”) of the Respondent.
  5. Was the trial Court right in dismissing the Counterclaim of the Appellants without recourse to the evidence before it.
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The Appellants’ Counsel submitted that the High Court of the FCT lacked jurisdiction to entertain the Respondent’s claim relating to the impounding and detention of his car by the Appellants as the act of impounding of his vehicle is an administrative act of an agency of the Federal Government of Nigeria and any action challenging its administrative act can only be instituted at the Federal High Court.  It was also argued that it is the responsibility of the Respondent to ensure that any passenger in his car is wearing a seatbelt, failure of which amounts to an offence and the FRSC Act has empowered the Commission and its officers to impound vehicles of persons reasonably suspected of committing such offences.

On the other hand, the Respondent’s Counsel contended that the reliefs sought by the Respondent are purely based on the law of tort of detinue, assault and battery over which the High Court of the FCT definitely has jurisdiction. ​The Respondent’s Counsel contended further that the Appellants’ counter claim is a separate action on its own and over which they were expected by law to lead evidence in proof and can only succeed on the strength of their case. The Appellants did not prove by evidence how they arrived at the sum claimed as fine in the counterclaim which is in the realm of special damages and ought to be pleaded, particularized and proved mathematically by the Counter Claimants.

DECISION/HELD:

In conclusion, the Court found the appeal unmeritorious and thereby dismissed same. Consequently, the judgment of the Federal Capital Territory High Court was affirmed.

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RATIO

GOVERNMENT AGENCY- FEDERAL ROAD SAFETY COMMISSION:  Instance where the Federal Road Safety Commission will be held to have no basis for issuing a notice of offence sheet –

“The Appellants under issue 2 and 3 challenged the finding that there was no basis for the Notice of offence sheet issued on the Respondent notwithstanding Regulation 58 (4) of the National Road Traffic Regulations, 2004 made pursuant to Section 5 of the Federal Road Safety Commission Act, 2007. It places on a driver of a vehicle to ensure that all passengers in the vehicle have their seat belts firmly fitted while the vehicle is in motion… There is no doubt that the Regulations are subsidiary laws which has to be obeyed. It was duly made and there is no issue as to its legitimacy. The question answered by the trial Judge was whether there was an infraction to warrant the Notice. Of course, the Appellants could in the face of a breach issue Notice of offence and also impound vehicles by which an offence was committed. See Section 10(5)H and ESEKHAIGBE V FEDERAL ROAD SAFETY COMMISSION (2014) LPELR-24388(CA)…

The Appellants in seeking to overturn the findings must find in the record of appeal evidence that make the finding of the trial Court perverse. In an attempt to do so, the Appellants relied on the evidence of the sole witness called by the Appellants and particularly when he said the person in the front seat in the Respondent’s car did not have his seat belt on and this was denied by the person who testified as CW2 and also CW1, the Respondent. Both of them explained that the passenger unbelted himself while attempting to get out of the car when the altercation started between the parties. The trial Court believed the evidence of the Claimant. The aspect not denied is the fact that the Appellants did not deny that the passenger actually came out of the car. Assuming the passenger did not have his seat belt on, should the liability of breaching the regulation be transferred from the person who was unbelted to the driver of the car who had his seat belt on? The quoted Section 10(4), the basis of the Appellants’ contention says: “Driving a vehicle not fitted with seat belt or where fitted, not wearing same while the vehicle is in motion.” I agree with the Respondent that in interpreting the above quoted provision the words must be given its literal meaning where the words are clear…There is therefore nothing in the said provisions that makes the driver of the car responsible for the infraction of a passenger. It is merely the convenience of the 1st Appellant to want to make a driver liable because he owns or the vehicle is under his control. Criminal liability is not transferable, see what the apex Court said in PML (NIG) LTD V FRN (2017) LPELR-43480(SC) thusly: “…it will not be a valid defense in law for any person, who is alleged to have committed an offence to argue that while committing that offence he was acting as agent of a principal since it is not a defense that is known to law. Very true; criminal liability is personal; it cannot be transferred because the mens rea or actus reus is on the accused in Court – See Akpa v State (2008) 14 NWLR (pt. 1106) 72.” Per AUGIE, J.S.C. Therefore, even if the Respondent in answer to a question under cross examination referred to the CW2 as the offender, it cannot translate to him being the offender since the regulations did not say in case any passenger in a car found not to have his seat belt on, the person driving will be liable. Therefore, the transferred liability leading to the struggle was wrong and not supportable in law… The Appellants also relied on Regulation 58(4) of the National Road Traffic Regulations, 2004 which states as follows: “The driver of any vehicle shall ensure that all passengers in the vehicle have their seat belts firmly fitted while the vehicle is in motion.” The point at which the purported Notice of offence was issued the vehicle was not in motion. Agreed that it places responsibility of ensuring that passengers in a vehicle have their seat belts fastened on the driver. In any case this was not the Section relied upon by the Appellants in booking the Respondent…” Per NIMPAR, J.C.A.

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