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Constructively Dismissed Airline Engineer Wins Compensation

PLEASE NOTE: Information in this article is correct at the time of publication, please contact DFA Law for current advice on older articles.

A senior airline engineer who was disciplined and demoted after making mistakes whilst servicing a passenger jet has been awarded almost £25,000 in compensation after an Employment Tribunal (ET) ruled that he was constructively unfairly dismissed (British Airways plc v Higgins).

Mr Higgins had been employed by British Airways plc for almost 30 years and was working a weekend shift at the time of the incident. He had complained about having to cope with a significant backlog of work with insufficient staff but had been told by his managers to do the best he could.

He was supervising contractors who had been brought in to assist him. He observed that their work was of high quality and so sample checked it without deeming it necessary to check every aspect of it. When one of them said that he had damaged a wire, Mr Higgins used the wrong type of splice to fix the problem. Proper scrutiny of the maintenance manual would have revealed his error. He also forgot to fill in a defect card before signing off the wiring work, which he had agreed to do as the contractor said he did not know how to do so.

Mr Higgins was suspended after the wiring defect was discovered. Following disciplinary proceedings, he was dismissed. He appealed against this decision and was instead given a final warning, to last two years, and demoted by three seniority grades. This involved a substantial loss of salary, benefits and responsibility. He resigned in response to the demotion. The ET subsequently found that British Airways had offered no potentially fair reason for Mr Higgins’s dismissal, having conceded that if the ET were to conclude that he had been constructively dismissed, then the dismissal was unfair.

In the ET’s view, Mr Higgins had been constructively dismissed in terms of Section 95(1)(c) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA) and the dismissal was unfair under ERA Section 98(4). As he had contributed to his dismissal by his own conduct, however, a 50 per cent deduction was made from his compensation award.

In challenging that ruling before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), British Airways argued that the ET had wrongly found that the demotion amounted to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence in Mr Higgins’s employment contract, and in failing to consider whether demotion was within the range of reasonable responses to his misconduct, the ET had reached a perverse conclusion.

In rejecting the appeal, however, the EAT declined to consider legal arguments which had not been previously aired before the ET. The ET had been entitled to conclude that, if Mr Higgins had been constructively dismissed, it was common ground that the dismissal was unfair. The ET had carefully addressed the evidence and had not misdirected itself in law.

Contact Wendy Davidson for advice on any disciplinary issue.

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