By Kayode Matthew
A Lagos State High Court, Ikeja judicial division has awarded N3 million to a retired Commissioner of Police, Chief John Chukwuogo Okafor as damages for libelous publications against him by a news magazine and a national newspaper.
Delivering her judgment in a N100 million libel suit filed by Chief Okafor against the two news media, the trial judge, Justice D.T.Okuwobi found the defendants liable for libel and gave the award of damages.
In his suit, Chief Okafor complained about some publications against him titled: â€œCover up charge over Igweâ€™s assassinationâ€, â€œA major breakthroughâ€, and â€œEx Police boss accused over F.F.B.C.â€, where he was accused of complicity in the murder of the traditional ruler of Nawfia Community in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, late Chief Igwe Nwankwo.
In her judgment, Justice Okuwobi said the issues which arise for decision are:
*Whether there has been publication of defamatory matter by the defendants of the plaintiff,
*If the answer to issue No 1 is in the affirmative whether or not the defendants have made out a good defence to the claim,
*If the answer to issue No 2 is in the negative whether the plaintiff is entitled to damages.
According to her, â€œIssue No 1 does not seem to be in contest save for the case of the 2nd defendant who filed a statement of defence which constituted mere denials and failed to appear in Court to give evidence. The publication in exhibit â€œP9â€ of the press Interview he made is the subject of the complaint in paragraph 5 of the statement of claim. Where a party fails to lead evidence in support of the averments in his pleading which has not been admitted by the opposite party such averments are deemed to have been abandoned.
An, averment in pleadings is not tantamount to evidence. However a party need not lead evidence at the trial provided there is available evidence to prove or sustain his case. In the instant case other Defendants have not denied making the publication. The 1st 3rd and 4th defendants published the words complained of.
â€œOn â€˜issue No 2 whether the words complained of are defamatory, it is settled law that in an actions involving libel, the question whether the words complained of are in fact defamatory and whether they are capable of referring to the Plaintiff as well as capable of conveying a defamatory meaning in the minds of reasonable persons in the circumstances of the particular case are to be in support of the complaint.
â€œThe words in exhibits P10,P11 and P13 when construed it shall be viewed in their fair and natural meaning which would be given them by reasonable persons of ordinary intelligence who are neither unusually suspicious or naive. I look at the words in their context and I have come to the decision that the words complained of coming as they were presented to the reader are clearly defamatory. The headline in exhibit â€œP11â€ and â€œP13â€ are aimed at creating a sensation.
The stories reported convey the unmistakable inference that the Plaintiff as published of him in exhibits P10 and P11 was connected with the assassination of Igwe FFBC Nwankwo and was involved in the cover up of the assassins. The stories presented as the words complained of were presented would lower the Plaintiff in the estimation of reasonable people like CW3 whose evidence 1 find useful in the course of the Plaintiffs case.
The 1st Defendant has pleaded that the words published are privileged and do raise the defence of privilege. The publication was of public importance as accusation of complicity in a crime or cover up against a Police Commissioner in a murder case was news worthy. They have a constitutional duty to publish words complained of in the circumstance.
â€œIt is clear from that publication that the Plaintiff was the person to whom the publisher refers to. In determining whether the extract from the publication or words are capable of a defamatory meaning I have taken a close look at the words complained of as a whole, I find that any .reasonable reader who is not naive or unusually suspicious would regard them as being libelous of the Plaintiff. A reasonable reader would receive these words as conveying an imputation that the Plaintiff is a murderer, a common criminal, who was allowed to serve in the police force rising to the position of a commissioner.
I have no option but to come to the conclusion that the words complained of in the matter of the publication of exhibit P9 are in reference to the Plaintiff he is John Okafor a retired Police Commissioner from Umuriam in the Nawfia Local Government area of Anambra State. The words published of him in fact caused him injury and put him to odium in the estimation of right thinking members of society. As I have earlier found the 4th Defendant, admitted this case. The 4th defendant is liable to the Plaintiff in damages. I have in this judgment found the 1st and 4th defendants liable for libel as regards their publication exhibits P9, P10, and P11Â of the person of the plaintiff.
Now I must come to the issue of damages. The amount of damages in a libel case is to be governed by all the circumstances in the particular case. The court is entitled to take into consideration the conduct of the Plaintiff, his position and standing in society, the nature of the libel, the manner and extent of the publication, inc.. absence of an apology or the refusal to retract, the conduct of the Defendant looked upon on the whole and the evidence before the Court in aggravation or mitigation of damages.
The true measure in damages in libel cases is compensatory although damages may take into account the actual and anticipated pecuniary loss or social disadvantage resulting or likely to result from the loss done and the grief and distress done to the Plaintiff or increased his mental pain or suffering Or might constitute injury to his pride.