The abrupt suspension of the US$10.7 million vehicle debt case by Prestige and Alliance Motors against the Government of Liberia on Friday left several employees of the company in tears when one of the three judges of the Commercial Court was nowhere to be found.
Immediately after Judge Richard S. Klah made the announcement about the reassignment of the case, most of the employees who had accompanied their chief executive officer (CEO), George Haddad, a Lebanese businessman, broke down in tears. One said, “Justice has been delayed again.”
Another employee said, “This time Papa (George Haddad) is going to dismiss some of us, because the amount of money involved makes it difficult for the company to maintain all of us.”
Yet another said, “What is this? Why are our own people doing this to us? Are they interested in us dying or jobless and not able to cater to the welfare of our families?
“This court was established to expediently hear commercial related issues like our case, but our case has been before them for almost three years and we don’t know when it will come to an end.”
Meanwhile, when Judge Klah reassigned the case, he did not say when the other judges, especially Chief Judge Eva Mappy Morgan, will be ready to hear the matter.
Although Chief Judge Morgan scheduled the matter last Friday, Morgan did not show up, which made it very difficult for her two other colleagues to handle the case.
The dramatic event started when both government lawyers and those of plaintiff, including employees of the company, were all seated waiting for the court to start the case.
After sitting for about an hour, one of the judges, Richard S. Klah, walked out of his office and entered the courtroom and was heard saying, “We will not be able to hear the case today, therefore, the matter is reassigned.”
Judge Klah did not take his seat as he normally would have done whenever a matter is reassigned; instead, he stood up for about a minute and made the reassignment statement on the case.
The case has been before the panel of judges to hear and decide on its merits and demerits since 2015.
The 2010 Act that created the court provides that in the absence of one of the three judges, the other two cannot hear ‘civil commercial action’ cases ranging from claims of US$100,000 and above, which affects the current case.
Judge Morgan had earlier, on November 21, reassigned the matter to December 1, which was last Friday. She had denied pleas from state lawyers for the case to be suspended on grounds that they were not ready to proceed.
The case was first filed at the Commercial Court in 2014 and was subsequently heard in 2015 by the Commercial Court where state lawyers filed a motion and questioned whether the Commercial Court had the legal authority over the matter, which occurred between 2003 and 2008. The court was established in 2010.
Judge Morgan denied state lawyers’ motion on grounds that the court was established for all cases arising from commercial transactions.
Alliance & Prestige Motors’ lawyers had earlier contended against state lawyers’ claim and said though the Commercial Court was established in 2010 by an Act of the National Legislature as a specialized court to adjudicate cases arising from commercial transactions; nevertheless, the court can hear the case.
The company said the US$10.7 million debt emanated from vehicles and spare parts it supplied to the Liberian government from 2003 to 2008, for which they are yet to receive payment from the government.
The Commercial Court was established in September 2010 to promote a favorable investment climate and instill confidence in the business community.
The long delays to hear cases involving business entities have frustrated debt recovery efforts, especially from government agencies, contributing to the unwillingness of these entities to extend credit opportunities.
Hence, the need arose for the Liberian government to establish a special court to expedite some of this workload, especially commercial issues that did not require a jury trial. The court has a three-judge panel that sits individually or together depending on the claim and the amount involved.
The jurisdiction of the Commercial Court is extensive. The court can hear cases in civil commercial actions ranging from commercial claims of US$15,000 and above. Others are:
- Admiralty: creation, registration, foreclosure of maritime mortgages; sales and lease except realty; creation, negotiation, enforcement of negotiable instruments –rights and liabilities included; foreclosure of a mortgage.
- Agreements: Agency, partnership, corporation or similar business relationship –creation, performance; assignment and/or modification; appeal/decide an application for enforcement of final decisions of arbitral panel and other claims of commercial nature.