An asphalt business founder, suffering from dementia, has successfully defended an unfair dismissal case brought by his managing director, with the help of legal representation from the specialist employment law team at Stephens Scown LLP.
89-year-old Eric Roberts set up the tarmac business, Eric Roberts Contractors Ltd in St Columb, Cornwall, in 1956. Former managing director, Andrew Robson, claimed Mr Roberts made him redundant from his £50,000-a-year role and accused him of “running the business into the ground” during a trade recession.
Judge Simon Cuthbert of the tribunal rejected the claim, concluding that Mr Robson had resigned from his role. The court heard that Mr Roberts had been diagnosed with dementia months before Mr Robson was promoted to CEO in October 2019.
Representing Mr Roberts in the case, Terry Falcão said: “This was an important case because the claimant sought to exploit the vulnerability of the founder. He relied on the possibility that either Mr Roberts would not be able to give evidence or that, because of his dementia, Mr Roberts would be less credible that the claimant himself. He therefore fabricated a conversation in which he alleged Mr Roberts made him redundant. The fiction created was absurd because the business needed the claimant more than ever, and the “dismissal” and package which the claimant paid himself was beneficial only to the claimant.”
Mr Roberts used to pop into the office from time-to-time to see the employees, and liked to make suggestions. He accepted that in a meeting in January 2021 he made suggestions about health and safety issues and filling the extra potholes at no additional cost, but he didn’t criticise anyone’s work, and these were “proposals and not regulations”.
Mr Robson unexpectedly led Mr Roberts to a private room and said to him, “If you’re not happy with the way I run the business, I’ll go.”
Mr. Roberts described how the managing director then asked the office manager to come into the room to take notes and in accusing Mr Roberts of dismissing him, did not let Mr Roberts speak at all. The office manager noted the comments of Mr Robson, and described Mr Roberts’ state of confusion, and inability to process the information.
The next day Mr Robson asked Mr Roberts to sign a document, which he did without reading, trusting Mr Robson. Only later did he realise that it was a letter of dismissal.
Mr Roberts said: “I did not write this letter and did not know how to do the redundancy calculation. I am an 89-year-old man and I do not know how to use a computer and / or the internet.”
Terry Falcão said “Our strategy of affording Mr Roberts a chance to give evidence, was not without risk, but in this case, the judge found Mr Roberts “credible and compelling”. In cases where there are vulnerable witnesses, it is essential for the legal team to consider the risks carefully, against the principles which the client seeks to uphold.”
Stephens Scown’s employment law team has been one of the fastest growing and most effective teams representing owner managed businesses and SMEs in the South West, having grown ten-fold in 10 years. In terms of disputes and litigation, it has been recognised as one of the leading teams in the region.
Mr Robson’s claim for unfair dismissal was dismissed. The claimant took a Mercedes Van valued at over £23,000 as part of his settlement, having created a further fiction that he was entitled to a bonus and also estimated its value without reference to anyone. The company is currently exploring its options for recovering the van, the overpayments and also its legal expenses for a claim that was misconceived from the outset.