Western Publishing Co. Ltd v. Dr. Kayode Fayemi  13 NWLR (Pt. 1582) 218 at 292, paras. B-C, per Ugo, JCA:
“…They (punitive damages) can be awarded, especially where it is pleaded and proved that the defendant intended to make a profit from the false publication which he believed would far outweigh whatever damages that would be awarded against him in a libel action…”
What we have learnt from the above statement of the law is that although a person guilty of defaming the character of another is ordinarily liable in damages, where such defamation (in the form of libel for instance) was done for the purpose of making profit, the courts would be inclined to award punitive or exemplary damages. The interesting reasoning of the court is that such a person deserves to be punished because some form of ‘economic or business decision’ might have been made by the offending party in that the person might have acted on the belief that the profit that would accrue from the defamatory publication would outweigh whatever damages that would be awarded by the court.
Notably, the foregoing applies not only to newspaper outfits. Any person who defames the character of another can suffer punitive damages in deserving cases.
In the instant case, the trial court awarded a whopping 2 Billion Naira aggravated (compensatory) damages against the Appellants having found the Appellants liable for libel, while refusing the exemplary damages sought. The Appellant had alleged that the Respondent, who at the time was the Governor of Ekiti State, had corruptly enriched himself and also had bribed some Justices of the Supreme Court who were then hearing the appeal of his predecessor, for Governor Segun On, against the Respondent’s election. The Appellant was held liable for libel and same finding was upheld by the Court of Appeal who held that none of the defences put up by the Appellants availed them.
The Appellants also argued that the 2 Billion Naira awarded as aggravated damages was excessive and punitive. The Court of Appeal of course had no difficulty in holding that punitive damages can be awarded in deserving circumstances like in the instant case. However, the Court of Appeal was absolutely dissatisfied with the award made by the trial court and emphatically criticized same thus:
“Two Billion Naira damages in the circumstances is quite on the very high, if not even outrageous, side. It is not only outrageously excessive as aggravated damages but even excessively punitive as exemplary damages, assuming that was what the lower court meant to do even as it refused to award the exemplary damages claimed. In reality the lower court seems to have given (and extremely generous too) with the left hand what it had purported to have denied the claimant with the right hand. With this award the respondent may well decide to go into immediate retirement and live the life of a billionaire (at least in Naira terms) for the rest of his life, all because of a libel published against him which the same court has incidentally even ordered that the defendants/appellants publicly apologise to him and even retract in three prominent newspapers. Even if the respondent were to be rendered paraplegic in an accident case, it is doubtful if he would get this huge sum the court awarded him for defamation of character. I know that damages in defamation actions are ‘at large’ and involves the exercise of discretion, like all exercises of discretion, must be judiciously and judicially exercised. The competing cases of the parties to justice (including the issue of award of damages) must be put in the imaginary scales of justice and weighed in exercising the discretion society entrusts the judge with. The instant award does not seem at all to have been so scaled. In fact it has more of the feel of a jackpot and/or windfall than an award by a court of justice in a libel case.”
(See pages 290-291, paras. D-B of the report).
To add, with the award made by the trial court, the 1st Appellant might as well fold up!
On a lighter note, even if the 2 Billion Naira was allowed to stand, as a politician (of typically Nigerian breed), it is extremely doubtful if that is enough to make the Respondent proceed to immediate retirement.
After a review of previous authorities on the point, the Court of Appeal reduced the award to 13 Million Naira. This is more sensible.
You may read: “How Punitive can Damages be in Nigeria?”
*I do not agree with the author of the referenced article that there is need for legislative intervention regarding award of punitive damages. We simply need our judges to ensure that discretion in awarding damages (just as in all other cases) is exercised judiciously and judicially.