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Success for David Platt KC and Juliet Stevens in a ‘stress at work’ PI claim



Summary

David Platt KC and Juliet Stevens have scored a significant win for the Defendant in a large stress at work claim in the High Court.  On 7 June 2024, Gavin Mansfield KC sitting as a Deputy Judge of the High Court dismissed the Claimant’s personal injury claim in the case of Darren Cavanaugh v Folsana Pressed Section Limited [2024] EWHC 1381 (KB).  They were instructed by Clyde & Co.

Prior to the events in question, the Claimant was a company director and operations manager of the Defendant firm. In 2018 he was suspended on allegations that he had engaged in sustained bullying and harassment of other employees. An investigation and a disciplinary process followed, which culminated in the Claimant’s dismissal for gross misconduct. He alleged that he had suffered a significant mental health deterioration, still ongoing at the time of trial.

Having been debarred from bringing a claim in the Employment Tribunal on grounds of limitation, the Claimant brought a personal injury claim against the Defendant.  He claimed damages in the sum of £1.3m.

His claim was restricted to alleged injury caused by pre-dismissal events, there being no cause of action at common law for psychiatric injury arising from the dismissal itself: Johnson v Unisys Ltd [2003] 1 AC 518.

The Claimant’s case was in essence that it was he who was the victim of bullying and oppressive behaviour rather than being the perpetrator.  There was therefore a stark conflict on the facts.  A large number of witnesses was called to determine which version was correct.

Press reports on the claim can be found here, no doubt enlivened by the revelation that the Claimant kept a bust of Stalin on his desk.

Facts

The Claimant’s case was threefold.  First, he alleged that the disciplinary process was a sham, in that his removal from the company was pre-meditated and a result of a conspiracy against him. Amongst other matters, he alleged that key handwritten letters making complaint against him were inauthentic, and this his removal from the company was related to an earlier ‘whistleblowing’ disclosure.

Second, he suggested that if his suspension and the events that followed were not a contrivance, they were done without reasonable cause and in such a “high handed and disproportionate” manner that they amounted to a breach of the tortious duty owed by the Defendant to the Claimant and/or the implied contractual duty of mutual trust and confidence as per Malik v Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA [1998] AC 20.

Third, that the Defendant failed adequately to act upon various oral and written notifications given by the Claimant as to the effect that the disciplinary process was having on his mental health. The Claimant argued that his psychiatric injury was therefore foreseeable and that the Defendant should have acted on these warnings.

Findings

The Court found for the Defendant in relation to each and every aspect of the above.

First, the Court rejected the Claimant’s conspiracy theory and found that the Claimant’s allegations in this regard were baseless. The judge found that the Claimant had not in fact made any whistleblowing disclosure, and furthermore, that on the evidence it was “regrettable that the allegation was made”.  The Claimant’s “dogmatic pursuit” of the alleged conspiracy theory at trial “seriously undermined his credibility as someone with a reliable perception of events”.

The Court found that the Claimant was a domineering character, who thrived on conflict, and accepted David Platt KC’s submission that the Claimant was a man for whom it was “my way or the highway”.

Next, the Court rejected the second limb of the Claimant’s case, that the manner in which he was suspended and the disciplinary process conducted was outwith the bounds of reasonable process. The Judge found that it had been prudent to have suspended the Claimant prior to the investigation. Further, that there is no obligation on an employer to give prior warning of suspension, nor is there a duty upon an employer to provide a detailed explanation to an employee of the reasons for their suspension. He also concluded that the disciplinary process was conducted by various external independent HR professionals and that this strongly suggested that the process was a proper one.  Following Hatton v Sutherland [2002] ICR 613 and Yapp v Foreign and Commonwealth Office [2014] EWCA Civ 1512 and a review of authorities relating to disciplinary proceedings in a stress at work context, the Court did not accept that psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable.

Finally, the Court rejected the contention that the Defendant had been in breach of duty as regards the ‘mental health notifications’.  The Claimant had been unable to establish that the Defendant had needed to act on them (given that he was already receiving pertinent medical care) and/or that so doing would have made any difference.

In any event, the claim as a whole also failed on grounds of causation. At trial, the psychiatric experts provided key clarification to their (largely agreed) view. The experts opined that the Claimant’s psychiatric injury arose from his perception of how he was being treated by the Defendant, rather than the specifics of how he was in fact treated. The Court accepted the Defendant’s submission that the Claimant would never have perceived his suspension or the disciplinary process as fair or justified. As such, ‘but for’, the Claimant’s injury would have been no different.

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