The High Court of Akwa Ibom State sitting in Uyo in a landmark judgment delivered on Wednesday, the 25th day of November, 2020 has ordered Union Bank of Nigeria PLC to pay the sum of N5.5m to two men, Mr God'swill Augustine Inyang and Chief Asuquo Thomson Nkana as damages for breach of contract.
The judgment was delivered by Justice Winifred Effiong sequel to a Writ of Summons filed on the 1st day of February, 2019 by a litigation and public interest law firm, Inibehe Effiong Chambers, on behalf of the claimants.
On 16th March, 2016, the claimants had approached the Udo Udoma Branch of Union Bank Nigeria Plc in Uyo with intention to open a Cooperative Society Account for themselves.
They were directed to meet one Idiongo Ebong Inyang, a staff of the bank in charge of customer care service.
After negotiation, the said Inyang demanded and collected on behalf of the bank, the sum of N400, 000.00 and voters card from the claimants and issued them an endorsed deposit slip with a promise that their account number will be issued and communicated to them in a few days’ time.
The claimants waited for over a month without receiving any such message from the bank.
They decided to go to the bank to enquire why it took so long and they were told to exercise patience, with assurance that the said account number will soon be processed and sent to them.
This promise was not kept, hence the claimants decided to engage their lawyers to write to the bank for refund of their money but the bank remained adamant despite repeated demand letters and entreaties.
As all options failed, the claimants decided to instruct their counsel to seek redress in court and made sundry claims, including a demand for N400,000.00 being the principal sum they deposited, 10% interest of the principal sum on monthly basis, N20,000,000.00 as general damages and cost of action assessed at N500,000.00.
Union Bank, upon being served with the court processes, engaged the services of their counsel, Jerry Akpan Esq., to defend them in court.
The case was heard and determined in less than two years which is not a common development in the Nigerian judiciary in cases of this nature.
The bank in their defense called one witness (a staff of the bank).
They admitted that the said Idiongo Ebong Inyang was their staff at the time of carrying out the transaction but denied giving her such authority to either collect money from customers or open an account for them.
Union Bank argued that the claimants acted fraudulently with their staff since she never had the prior authority to act in that capacity.
The bank claimed that Ms. Inyang's duty was to only receive customers, cross check their documents and then refer them to appropriate units for such transactions.
The counsel to the bank further submitted that the claimants were not customers of the bank since they had no existing account number with the bank.
More so, that the said Ms Inyang had defrauded the bank sometime in 2017 and absconded with the bank's money.
Akpan urged the court to dismiss the suit with substantial cost against the claimants.
In response, Augustine Asuquo, who is the deputy head at Inibehe Effiong Chambers, argued that the act of an agent in law binds the principal based on the principle of vicarious liability.
He argued that the claim that only people, who have account number with a bank are recognised as customers in law or can have a valid contractual relationship with a bank was erroneous and misconceived, as there are a plethora of ways one can be deemed to be a customer of the bank.
He submitted that one of such ways is by depositing money for the purpose of opening an account as evidenced in the deposit slip issued to the claimants in the instant case.
The court agreed with the claimants' counsel that the failure by Union Bank to open an account for the claimants after they deposited money with the bank for that purpose amounted to a breach of contract for which the bank was liable.
Justice Winifred accordingly entered judgment in the claimants’ favour and awarded the sum of N5m as general damages, N100,000 as cost of action and also ordered Union Bank to refund the N400,000 deposited by the claimants for the opening of the account which was never done.
Reacting to the judgment, Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, whose law firm represented the claimants, stated that the ruling will serve as a strong deterrence against corporate greed.
“This is another testament to the sacred role of the judiciary as the last hope of the common man. I hope Union Bank and other financial institutions will realise that they cannot do whatever they like with depositors’ funds. The learned judge has elevated justice and remedied the injustice done to the claimants,” Effiong said.