Northampton firm loses unfair dismissal case after hiring investigators to film worker they thought was faking injury

Wincanton's Sainsbury's distribution centre. The firm was so convinced an employer was faking injury to get time off work, it hired private investigators to tail her. Now it will have to pay her �20,000 in compensation.
Wincanton's Sainsbury's distribution centre. The firm was so convinced an employer was faking injury to get time off work, it hired private investigators to tail her. Now it will have to pay her �20,000 in compensation.

A Northampton warehouse worker who was sacked after her employers claimed she was “exaggerating” the extent of her injuries has been awarded £20,000 in an unfair dismissal claim.

Natalia Samuel was struck by a falling drill part on April 11, 2012, while working at the Sainsbury’s Swan Valley packaging warehouse, owned by logistics firm Wincanton.

The injury on that day caused her to suffer severe nausea, headaches, and poor balance, and after being assessed by doctors, she was forced to take a long stretch of time off work.

But her employers thought she was faking it.

Wincanton sacked her for gross misconduct on October 8, 2014, claiming she had exaggerated her symptoms.

The firm even hired private investigators to tail her while she went shopping, claiming the resulting DVD showed she was capable of carrying out full duties.

But following a four-day tribunal in Huntingdon, Mrs Samuel was awarded £20,000 in damages for unfair dismissal.

Finding in her favour, Judge Michael Ord said: “The most striking aspect of this case as far as the tribunal is concerned is that the medical evidence speaks consistently of the claimant’s limitations as a result of her injury.”

He added: “The dismissal was both procedurally and substantively unfair.”

Mrs Samuel had tried to return to work in June 2012 after being certified as fit for work but with amended duties.

Her warehouse job involved her having to pick up heavy items up to 25 kg, but Wincanton refused to make arrangements for her conditions.

Wincanton hired two outside bodies to assess Mrs Samuel’s work capability, all of whom said she should be put on light duties.

But Wincanton initially said she would have to apply for other desk-based roles in the company. On one occasion when she did, they told her the vacancy had been filled.

By the time Mrs Samuel had been out of work for nearly two years, Wincanton had hired Southern Law Services to make a “surveillance” video of her on February 4, 2014.

During a meeting a week later the firm showed her still images from the film, which it claimed showed her “walking a considerable distance” and moving “at a brisk pace”.

The company said the video, which saw investigators follow Mrs Samuel going to a shop and bending to pick up fruit, was proof she had “deceived” her bosses.

At the time as she had been on sick leave for so long, she was receiving nil pay - but Wincanton sacked her for gross misconduct in October of that year anyway.

Judge Ord found that in fact Mrs Samuel had been “anxious” to return to work providing her condition could be catered for from shortly after her accident.

In his summing up he said that a report compiled by an occupational health physician in February 2013 should have confirmed beyond doubt Mrs Samuel’s injuries had left her a “disabled person” under the meaning of the Equality Act, which should have meant her employers catered for her condition with lighter duties.

Instead, he found that Wincanton was intent on establishing that Mrs Samuel was “exaggerating her symptoms.”

Unbeknownst to her it began carrying out “covert surveillance” on her from as early as June 2013.

Following the judge’s decision a Wincanton spokesperson said: “We acknowledge and respect the court’s decision on this matter, but will not be commenting further at this time.”

Dave Green of the Industrial Workers of the World Union (IWW), has represented Mrs Samuel throughout her claim.

“This case shows the lengths and costs employers will go to avoid treating their employees fairly or decently. Unfortunately, in the modern working environment, companies can get away with treating their workers as expendable and believe that when things like this happen, they can just go and hire someone else.

“This case highlights the need to rebuild strong workplace Trade Unions as the only real way to secure better conditions for workers and to roll back the unbridled power of present day employers.”