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Clyde & Co has successfully defended a stress/bullying at work claim brought against a further and higher education college.
The claimant was employed as a senior lecturer/course leader at a further and higher education college. He claimed for damages and loss arising from alleged stress at work.
His allegations included bullying, negligence and breach of duty/contract. Although allegations of bullying were made, the claimant did not plead breach of the Protection from Harassment Act.
His pleaded case revolved around allegations of an unmanageable workload, an unsupportive management team and a failure to accommodate a phased return to work following a four-month period of absence. He alleged that he frequently complained about his workload, yet his concerns were ignored.
Clyde & Co were instructed prior to proceedings being issued. We obtained a substantial amount of disclosure from the insured. Several witness statements were obtained, which included key evidence from some members of staff who had either left the college or had retired. One of the witnesses initially refused to cooperate but we were able to persuade her to provide a statement. Their factual evidence was crucial to the defence. All the witnesses traced provided consistent and compelling evidence which refuted the claimant’s allegations in full.
The claimant did have some supporting witness evidence, but it was unimpressive and largely based on hearsay from accounts given by the claimant.
Causation was also disputed. The claimant’s medical expert considered that the alleged breach of duty was a material cause of the generalised anxiety disorder and moderate depressive disorder that the claimant developed in 2017. Our expert’s view differed. He believed the cause was multifactorial and the claimant may have become depressed at that time in any event. Our expert also found other stressors in the claimant’s life at the material time that could have affected him. These included an affair with a colleague, the questioning of his competency and the prospect of a restructure at the college.
Both experts agreed the claimant had a relevant previous psychiatric history with a history of polysubstance misuse with sensitive and obsessional traits within his personality and both also noted inconsistency in the history provided by the claimant which raised credibility issues.
We maintained a clear and robust defence throughout. During the pre-trial conferences, our witnesses came across well and provided clear evidence. This was reassuring since the claim would be determined based on the evidence and performance of witnesses at trial. The claimant was described by his former colleagues as having, at times, been aggressive, often instigating difficult interactions.
Our defence was based upon the claimant’s inability to prove breach/negligence, foreseeability and causation. There was compelling evidence that the defendant had acted reasonably in its handling of the claimant, including grievances raised against him. It was also shown that any complaints raised by the claimant had been dealt with and in a reasonable time frame.
The claimant’s allegations in respect of bullying/harassment from the senior management team appeared to be fabricated.
We invited the claimant to discontinue several times, but he was determined to continue with his claim and have his day in court. He did not seem to accept the deficiencies in his case that were put to him on more than one occasion.
Shortly before trial the claimant made a number of approaches to settle the claim including a first (and only) Part 36 offer. However, as the case was fully prepared and defence was considered to be robust, the insurers were not attracted by last minute attempts to settle on the steps of the court room.
Under cross-examination the claimant’s position changed. He was an unimpressive witness, coming across as inconsistent and confused. It appeared he did not seem to understand his own case and he was vague and evasive. He had to be reminded by the judge and both counsels to answer the questions put to him in a straightforward manner.
The claimant was forced to concede that prior to his four-month absence, he had never raised concerns about his workload. When he eventually did, the management team was supportive and reduced it accordingly. He also admitted that the insured had supported him and accommodated a phased return to work and that his workload had been covered in the months he was off.
Under cross-examination, the claimant was reluctant to admit there were other factors that could have added to his stress levels.
Following cross-examination over the course of two days, it is understood the claimant’s legal team re-evaluated his prospects of success. He eventually agreed to discontinue the claim rather than proceeding with the remaining three days of trial. This would have included hearing from the defendant’s witnesses’ and both parties’ medical experts. When the parties informed the court, the judge commented that the claimant had taken the right decision. He said that these types cases are never easy to prove and that based on the evidence before the court, the claimant’s prospects were remarkably low. Although he had not come to a conclusion, his preliminary assessment of the case was that it was “extremely poor” and “unlikely to succeed”.
This was not a case where dishonesty could be pleaded – the judge said it was clear to him the claimant was unhappy at the college for a variety of reasons. He also accepted that the claimant genuinely believed he had been the victim of wrongdoing on the part of those in authority.
Along with PSLA, the claimant claimed for past and future loss of earnings and future CBT. He had limited his claim to £150,000, though this was far above our valuation. Based upon the likely value of damages (c.£50,000), inclusive of costs, the savings achieved totalled approximately £195,000.
Cases of this nature are on the rise with some claimant firms having dedicated units to deal with stress at work cases. This clearly is a revenue stream identified by some claimant firms. Recent HSE statistics show that there has been an increase in reporting of stress at work. Combined with the impact of COVID and difficulties in the economy is it anticipated that there will be increased numbers of claims of this nature from a wide range of industries and professions.
These are complex, sensitive, high value cases and can attract media attention. They often involve employment issues. Care should be taken to ensure that they are properly investigated at the earliest possible opportunity to preserve the evidence. Clyde & Co have a UK-wide team that spans all types of legal work relevant to these claims so that we can provide a full service offering to both insurers and corporate clients.
It is understood the claimant had the benefit of a CCFA with his Trade Union. We are hopeful this outcome will persuade the claimant’s solicitors (and the Union) to take a more cautious approach in the future.
This case is a reminder of the hurdles faced by claimants in proving claims of this nature. They are expensive to run (and defend) but this outcome illustrates that cases without merit should be defended in full, to trial if necessary.
It is not uncommon to see claims from teachers/lecturers so this outcome, involving a Trade Union and a major claimant firm, may deter some future claims from the teaching profession. The claimant’s representatives will not be paid for the considerable work they have undertaken and their failure to accept our invitation to discontinue at an earlier stage has clearly been a very costly mistake.