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Absa Bank to pay judge Sh1m for bungled US shopping trip

By Dominic Omondi | November 9th 2021
By Dominic Omondi | November 9th 2021


Absa Bank branch on Queensway House. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Absa Bank Kenya has been ordered to pay a judge Sh1 million after her debit card was rejected while shopping in the US. 

The bank, previously Barclays Bank, had moved to the High Court to try overturn a 2017 decision by a magistrate’s court to award Justice Hellen Wasilwa of the Employment and Labour Relations Court Sh5 million for defamation.

Justice Said Juma Chitembwe reduced the award, arguing that the rejection of the debit card did not amount to defamation.

Instead, he found that the rejection of the card, which Wasilwa argued caused her “embarrassment, pressure, anxiousness and discomfort”, amounted to a breach of contract.

The bank, said Chitembwe, had a duty to ensure that the customer could access her money.

“Given the circumstances of the case, I do find that a sum of Sh1 million is sufficient damages for the embarrassment, pressure, anxiousness and discomfort suffered by the respondent,” the judge said in a ruling issued on October 21.

“This, in my view, sufficiently compensates the respondent for the breach of contract by the appellant.” 

Wasilwa told the court that on September 19, 2015 she used her debit card to buy goods worth $988.73 (Sh110,441) at the Ross Shop in the US, but the transaction was declined.

Six days later, she did more shopping at the Mills Store and once again her card was declined.

She told the court that she had been a prestigious customer at the bank since 1988 and before traveling abroad, had confirmed with the lender that she could use the debit card.

Wasilwa tried to reach the bank, but there was no response. She tried to run her card again but it was declined.

At this time, she told the court, the customers at the store were looking at her suspiciously. The staff even summoned the security who stood at strategic corners of the store ready to pounce on her.

The supermarket was full and customers could read the word “declined” from the cashier’s screen, which embarrassed her, she said.

“It was her case that she did undergo distress and embarrassment due to both incidents and as a consequence, her character, credit and reputation were negatively affected,” read the court ruling.

Besides claiming that Wasilwa did not provide enough evidence - such as the declined receipts - to support her case, Absa also argued that the word “declined” could not be understood (by those who saw it on the tellers’ machine) to mean that she was not in a position to meet her personal financial obligation.

In any case, the bank said, Wasilwa did not provide witnesses to validate her allegations.

It is not the first time that a Kenyan is being awarded for embarrassment while shopping.

In 2009, the Milimani Commercial Court ordered KCB to pay Justice Nicholas Ombija Sh2.5 million after his Visa card was rejected at the Intercontinental Hotel and Nakumatt Supermarket between April and May 2008.

Ombija was awarded the money by the High Court for loss of business credit, repute and profit following a claim by KCB for a dishonoured cheque.

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