In the case of Mr J. Richardson v West Midlands Trains Ltd the Watford tribunal heard that Mr R – a train driver of more than 20 years’ experience – started working for the rail firm in 2018.
In mid-2022 he had a conversation in the mess room at work with a female colleague identified only as Driver A.
‘At some point, the issue of insects and/or spiders was brought up due to [Mr R] occasionally looking after those his friend(s) kept as pets, along with a snake,’ the tribunal heard.
‘At some point Driver A indicated a certain dislike of, or squeamishness in relation to, insects and/or spiders. This dislike was not elaborated upon.’
‘[Mr Richardson] sought to play a prank on her by placing the [tarantula] exoskeleton in her pigeonhole,’ the tribunal heard.
‘Whatever [his] intentions, Driver A was distressed by the episode and couldn’t deal with the exoskeleton; she required a colleague to clear it from her pigeonhole.’
The tribunal heard Mr Richardson raised the prank when he next met Driver A and she called him a ‘f***ing tw**’ after which he suggested he might do something similar with a snakeskin and she replied that she would report him.
The hearing was told Mr Richardson believed the tone of this conversation had been ‘jokey’, that being called a ‘tw**’ was ‘playful’ and he had not understood Driver A’s ‘genuine upset’.
She also later described the exchange as ‘over the top banter,’ the hearing was told, but the next month when he placed a snakeskin in her pigeonhole, she reported him to her boss.
At a disciplinary meeting in September Mr Richardson offered his ‘sincere apologies’ to Driver A but was sacked for gross misconduct after the company concluded he was guilty of bullying.
After an unsuccessful appeal against his dismissal, Mr Richardson took the company to the tribunal claiming unfair and wrongful dismissal.
Upholding his claims, Employment Judge Matthew Hunt said: ‘All parties appreciated what a prank was. Its purpose is to elicit a short-lived reaction of shock or surprise, followed by some sort of feeling of relief and good humour.
‘By saying this, I don’t intend to trivialise Driver A’s upset and fully appreciate that in this case the exoskeleton was genuine and well capable of causing greater shock.
‘[The company] in this case took [Mr Richardson’s] pranks as being intended, or capable of, inducing some sort of lasting state of considerable shock in Driver A, sufficient to potentially lead to catastrophic accident or significant business interruption.’
EJ Hunt says this conclusion was ‘inconsistent’ with the nature of the prank and should not have been judged as gross misconduct.
A hearing to determine Mr Richardson’s compensation will be determined at a later date.
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