By Henry Ojelu
Justice Sybil Nwaka of the Ikeja High Court, Lagos yesterday rejected an out of court settlement between the state government and Lekki Gardens Estate over a building collapse in 2017 which killed 34 persons.
Justice Nwaka rejected the “plea and sentence agreement” between the state and the company on the ground that it was drawn up in the absence of families of those who died in the incident.
The judge queried the two parties for not specifying the names of family members who would receive the N10 million compensation for the five persons the company insisted were the only casualties of the building collapse.
She also faulted the amended charge arising from the out-of-court-settlement for leaving out the criminal aspects of the original charges preferred by the state government against the property development company.
After hearing from the defence and prosecution counsel at the continuation of trial on Tuesday, Mrs Nwaka berated the lawyers for tendering a ‘Plea and Sentence Agreement’ and an ‘amended charge’ before the court without observing due diligence.
“The new charge is not before the court as far as I am concerned, we are still on the entire charge,” she said.
The state government in 2017 filed a six-count criminal charge against the Managing Director of Lekki Gardens, Richard Nyong, and seven others over the collapse of a five-storey building where about 34 persons were reportedly killed.
After the building collapsed on March 8, 2016, Lekki Gardens Estate reported that five people died in the incident as against the official figure of 34 casualties.
Mr Nyong and seven others were arraigned on charges bordering on failure to obtain building permits and approvals, negligence resulting in the collapse and involuntary manslaughter.
At the continuation of trial on Tuesday, Mr Nyong and the other defendants were at the court.
Babajide Taiwo, the prosecution counsel, told the court that within the period and the last adjournment, all the parties involved had “bargained on an agreement on January 23, 2020.
“All the parties signed the amended charge and the plea and sentence agreement,” he said.
The counsel prayed the judge to enter the agreement as the judgement of the court.
The judge, Mrs Nwaka, who initially requested time to go through the agreement, became furious after seeing that the amended charge left out some cogent parts of the criminal charges against the defendants.
“The amended charge is talking just about the failure to obtain building permits and other building approvals. The amended charge did not contain negligence, loss of lives and others.
“Many lives were lost, breadwinners of many families,” she said furiously.
In defence, Mr Olaonipekun said there were frank engagements on both sides before an agreement was reached.
“My Lord, there were responsible deliberations which led to the agreement,” he said.
He added that at the stage the agreement was reached, the prosecution took cognisance of the absence of certificates of deaths and post-mortem results of the deceased.
“Some families wanted compensation and the agreement caters for monetary compensation for the families of the deceased listed in the agreement,” he said.
Mrs Nwaka, while reviewing the agreement, said it was the first time it was presented to the court and she could not give any verdict without thoroughly going through them.
Mr Olanipekun highlighted that five persons were listed in the agreement and N10 million would be paid to the estate of each of the deceased, while N100 million would be paid to the state government.
“Are you saying you are paying more to the state government than the deceased families? Five families will get N50 million while the state will get N100 million?” the judge asked.
Mr Olanipekun further clarified that the families of people involved in the accident received intervention in the form of monetary support paid by the defendants.
“If there were supports, they should be in the copy of this agreement, you need to bring more facts to assist the court,” Mrs Nwaka said.
“You cannot just give money in a vacuum, and you expect me to agree to this agreement? It is easy to put names. It is not just to put the names of the deceased, who are you giving the N10 million to? Who are the dependants or persons to receive the money? They should be identified,” the judge said.
Mr Taiwo, the prosecution counsel, told the court that the families and all parties were duly notified. “It is one thing to notify them, it is another thing for them to be present in court.”
The judge said she had not requested their presence in court but added that it was not acceptable for the names of the families or those that will receive the N10 million not to be mentioned.
“They could give the money to people who are not related to the deceased. I know government, yes, they are going to get the N100 million, but I must identify the families,” the judge said.
“And you want me to agree to this? I refuse, I am not satisfied, I thereby refuse the agreement,” Mrs Nwaka said.
Mrs Nwaka ordered that the counsel get the names of the family members that will receive the compensation and must also present them in court.
“Go and do your work learned souls, this is not a wishy-washy thing, lives are involved. Trace their families and bring them to court,” she ordered.
The case was adjourned till March 10