Nominal damages are general damages.

This summary is fully reported at (2014) 6 CLRN.
The Appellant wrote a letter to the Chief Judge of Ondo State and copied the Chief Registrar of the court alleging that the Respondent, a retired Chief Magistrate had demanded and received a bribe of N3,000 (Three Thousand Naira) in the course of his duty. The Respondent was issued a query by the Chief Judge based on the allegation.
Consequently, the Respondent instituted an action against the Appellant for libel at the Ondo State High Court and sought a declaration that the Appellant’s letter is defamatory. Also, the Respondent sought an order for aggravated damages in the sum of N10,000,000 (Ten Million Naira) and a perpetual injunction restraining the Appellant and his agents from further publishing defamatory statements regarding him.
The Appellant pleaded the defenses of justification, qualified and absolute privilege and fair comment. The trial judge awarded nominal damages against the Appellant in the sum of N100,000 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) and also a granted perpetual injunction against him.
Dissatisfied with the Judgment, the Appellant appealed and the Respondent cross-appealed.
One of the issues for the determination of the Court of Appeal was:
“Whether the basis upon which the learned trial judge awarded a nominal damages, sum of N100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira Only) in favour of the respondent is proper and known to law.”
In arguing this issue, counsel to the Appellant contended that the Respondent’s claim is for the sum of N10,000,000 (Ten Million Naira) aggravated damages as opposed to the N100,000 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) nominal damages awarded by the court. Counsel submitted that courts are bound by the prayers of parties, and lack the power to grant a relief not sought. It was further contended that the issue of nominal damages was never raised and that the trial judge never allowed counsel to address the court on it.
Consequently, he argued that the award was devoid of any reason or point and submitted that the trial judge failed to exercise his discretion properly and judicially in awarding nominal damages in favour of the Respondent. 
Further, the Appellant submitted that since the principal claim had been denied by the trial court, an incidental or consequential relief or order ought not to arise. Hence the Appellant submitted that the trial judge by awarding nominal damages in favour of the Respondent introduced equitable considerations which he lacked the power to do. Further, he submitted that the grant of the nominal damages was not as a result of injury to the person of the Respondent in the libel allegation.
In response, counsel to the Respondent submitted that an appellate court will not interfere with the exercise of discretion by a lower court unless it can be shown that the lower court acted under a mistake of law or in disregard of principle or under a misapprehension of facts or that discretion was wrongly exercised or capricious or based on some wrong principles or extraneous factors. He argued that none of the factors was cited by the Appellant but that instead, the trial judge adverted to the legal principle that damages are awarded to a plaintiff in defamation to exonerate him and to make for the injury he had suffered to his person or character as a result of the libel.
Counsel further submitted that nominal damages are not different from general damages awarded in defamation cases and that such damages are awarded at the discretion of the court. He argued that the contention of the Appellant that nominal damages must be specifically pleaded is a misconception but that in defamation cases, once liability is established, damage is presumed and does not need to be pleaded. He submitted that it is the responsibility of the judge to quantify the amount to be granted as damages.
The Court of Appeal held that the tort of libel is actionable per se and that damages could be awarded upon establishing libel without proof of damages. Unanimously dismissing the appeal, the court further held that:
“I would have loved to agree with the appellant that the appellation of an award of 'general damages' rather than 'nominal damages' would have been more appropriate or would have at least shown clarity in the circumstances of the case.
But at the same time, I do not consider it an error to use the terms nominal damages in interchange for general damages. This is because there is actually nothing in the dictionary of law to suggest that the terms 'nominal damages' or 'general damages' could not be used interchangeably except for the fact that nominal damages may indeed express the idea of "a trifling sum awarded when a legal injury is suffered but when there is no substantial loss or injury to be compensated.          The practical significance of a judgment for nominal damages is that the plaintiff thereby establishes a legal right          "
Chief O. J. Jejelola appeared in person for the appellant/respondent.
T. A. Oyelola with Ife Faloye for the respondent/cross-appellant.
This summary is fully reported at (2014) 6 CLRN

Join in our discussion of the above report at