Warehouse worker unfairly dismissed after being accused of providing false information during investigation

6 Sep 2019 By Maggie Baska

Judge rules biscuit manufacturer ignored the fact its employee was in significant pain when he made statement after accident

A warehouse worker was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed after his employer alleged he had lied about a workplace accident, a Glasgow tribunal has ruled.

George Hope, who worked for United Biscuits, injured his ankle after he stepped off a pallet he was standing on. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, Hope said he had tried to step over the pallet, but he later amended his statement.

United Biscuits alleged that after the injury, Hope had provided false information to hide the fact he had carried out an unsafe act, and also alleged he had colluded with a colleague to misinform other employees.

But the employment tribunal (ET) ruled that no reasonable employer would have believed Hope’s initial statement – which became the focus of the subsequent investigation and disciplinary hearings – was intentionally disingenuous, as it was was taken when Hope was in pain.

The judge said little consideration was given to Hope having given a much more accurate description of events at the earliest opportunity after the night of the incident.

The incident occurred on 11 April 2018, when Hope fractured his ankle while stepping off a pallet in a warehouse. He gave an initial statement to a production manager, telling him: “Laying the pallet down, I tried to step over it and went over on my ankle.”

This statement was written down and signed by Hope before he was taken to hospital. It was later confirmed that Hope had sustained a double fracture to his ankle. 

Over the course of 11 and 12 April, the manager obtained statements from other employees. One statement, from Robert Barton, said Hope had been putting an empty pallet in position and that his foot had slipped when he stepped off the pallet.

Richard Payne, manufacturing manager, asked one of the other managers to review the CCTV footage of the accident. The footage showed Hope laying a sheet on a pallet, moving the pallet with his feet, then climbing onto a pallet which was upturned, stretching up to reach a radio and falling or slipping off the pallet. 

A health and safety investigation was carried out because Hope’s initial statements gave an impression he had stepped over a pallet. Scott Garner, a team manager, was appointed to carry out the investigation. He reviewed the CCTV footage and statements and arranged to hold a phone interview with Hope, who was absent from work as a result of the incident.

The tribunal heard the call took place on 19 April. Garner told Hope he wanted to talk about how the accident happened as Hope had been unable to give a full statement at the time. Hope was not informed at the time that Garner had reviewed the CCTV footage.

Hope said he could not remember how the accident happened. He was getting pallets when he “felt a twinge in [my] ankle, didn’t think anything of it”. He added he sometimes stepped onto a pallet. He said he went to turn the radio down and knew something was wrong when he came off the pallet afterwards. 

He added he told his manager “something about walking off the pallet and twisting my ankle”. He confirmed during the call that he was on strong painkillers. 

A second phone call took place on 26 April as part of the investigation, where Hope was informed that employee statements taken at the time suggested he had hurt his ankle by putting a pallet down and tripping over it. Hope said he did not think that was the case.

In another meeting on 9 May, Garner said that when he first reviewed the statements, the cause of the accident seemed to be tripping over a pallet, but it was now clear to him that it was the force of Hope falling down from the pallet after adjusting the radio. Garner asked Hope why none of his previous statements reflected on the force of the fall, and Hope replied that he never thought there was any force.

Hope was asked whether he wished to change his statement now that he had watched the CCTV footage, but he said there was nothing to change. 

By letter dated 10 May, Garner informed Hope that he was suspended from work because he “knowingly provided the business with a false statement” during the health and safety investigation. A disciplinary meeting took place a week later (17 May) where Hope was asked to go through the incident once again. 

When he was asked why in his first statement he said he fell over a pallet, Hope stated he could not really remember as he had been in “too much pain”.

Further disciplinary meetings took place over the following days, and Hope attended a final disciplinary hearing with Payne on 29 May where he was informed that providing false information during an investigation was considered gross misconduct.

Payne said Hope might have lost focus due to the pain and carried out a foolish act. But he had a “reasonable belief” that Hope had “colluded with Robert Barton” to provide different accounts of the incident and misinform others at the time to support Hope’s version of events.

As a result, Hope’s employment was terminated for gross misconduct on 29 May with immediate effect. Hope appealed his dismissal but was unsuccessful. 

Hope brought claims of unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal to the Glasgow tribunal, which upheld both of the claims.

Judge Woolfson ruled United Biscuits had focused on Hope’s initial statement without putting weight on much of what he subsequently said after the incident.

“[United Biscuits] had little regard to [Hope] having provided an explanation, at the first opportunity he was given after the night of the accident, which was a much more accurate account of events, and saying that he had been in a great deal of pain and could not remember what he had said (due to the pain) and that he had not in fact tripped over a pallet,” Woolfson said.

The tribunal order United Biscuits to pay Hope a sum of £7,844.87 for loss of wages.

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said it was clear to the ET that Hope was in a significant amount of pain when he made his first statement, which affected its accuracy and explained why it did not correlate with other evidence. 

“How evidence is gathered and used during disciplinary procedures can be crucial to a reasonable and fair dismissal,” Holcroft said. “As demonstrated in this case, it is essential that employers take all evidence available to them into account when assessing a potential situation of gross misconduct and ensure the accuracy of the content they are referring to.” 

Neither United Biscuits nor George Hope could be reached for comment.

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