The High court in Kampala has ruled that social media messages exchanged between parties can constitute a binding contract under section 3 of the Contracts Act 2010.
In a landmark decision, commercial division judge, Patricia Kahigi Asiimwe, said social messages are data messages generated, sent, received or stored by computer means and include voices used in an automated transaction, stored record, mean electronic representations of information in any form.
The decision arises from a successful suit filed by Dr Rodney Mugarura against Paramount Hospital Kampala Limited and it's director Dr Simon Begumisa. Mugarura sued the hospital and its director accusing them of having failed to pay his professional fees amounting to Shs 41.5 million after he was hired via WhatsApp to come and perform complicated surgeries.
In his testimony, Mugarura told court that in September 2019, Begumisa approached him and introduced himself via WhatsApp as the director of Paramount hospital. Begumisa further informed Mugarura that the hospital runs many departments including orthopedic surgery and that the hospital works with many surgeons who are given operating rights and the rights to charge their professional fees.
Mugarura was also informed by Begumisa that they desired to work with him under a similar arrangement. Records show that the two medical experts met and agreed that Mugarura would be called in whenever his services were required. The records further show that under the arrangement, it was agreed that Mugarura's invoices for his professional fees, surgical implants used in the surgeries, or any other services provided in the process of attending to the patients.
Despite making several payment demands, the respondents did not pay the money. During the hearing, the matter proceeded ex parte since the respondents were served and failed to make an appearance. Among the issues for determination, court was expected to decide whether Mugarura and the respondents had a valid and legally binding agreement executed via WhatsApp.
Mugarura brought witnesses to court including the surgical nurse he used to work with in the theatre and evidence from other fellow doctors whom he had assigned to review for him the patients he would operate and report back to him. After reviewing the messages shared on WhatsApp, justice Asiimwe ruled that the said messages indicate that there was an offer made, which was accepted, and that the services were provided, meaning that there was a contract.
Asiimwe added that under section 10 (3) of the Contracts Act, a contract is in writing where it is namely; in the form of a data message; accessible in a manner usable for subsequent reference; and otherwise in words.
She went ahead to explain that under section 2 of the Electronic Transactions Act 2011 a "data message" means data generated, sent, received, or stored by computer means and includes; voice, where the voice is used in an automated transaction; a stored record. Under the same provision, court ruled that “data" means electronic representations of information in any form.
"Under the above definition of data message, the message has to be stored by a computer. In this case, the data message was stored on a mobile phone. The question then is whether a cell/mobile phone is a computer."
Asiimwe has further explained in details that a cellphone is a computer as per the The National Information Technology Authority, Uganda Act, 2009. As such, she ruled that WhatsApp messages are data messages. According to Asiimwe, the hospital director asked Mugarura for his account details and the amount of money they owed him. And the two parties entered into negotiations which she said clearly indicates that services were provided and the respondents owed him money.
“The plaintiff also submitted invoices addressed to the two patients wherein both patients were billed for spinal surgery," added the judge after fining the respondents in breach of contract.
As a consequence, the hospital has been ordered to pay Mugarura Shs 41.5 million together with an interest of 20 per cent from the year he filed his case in 2021 up to until the hospital fully pays him.