Top lawyer says £1m-plus ruling against Bradford firm is real shot across bows of employers

Employment expert says damages act as warning to other firms


A leading lawyer has said a judgement today in the Court of Appeal which means a Bradford firm is expected to be sued for damages of more than £1m is a real shot across the bows to all firms and the judges critical comments must be a huge shock to the company concerned.

Sarah Cleary, regional head of Irwin Mitchells regulatory and investigations group, was commenting on the case of Michael Eyres, an employee of Atkinsons Kitchens and Bedrooms. He sustained a broken back and will never walk again, after being flung from his van on the M1, 32 miles from his Bradford home, in 2004.

Mr Eyres, aged 20 at the time, lost control of the vehicle and it overturned, following him falling asleep at the wheel as he drove back from Devon after working for 19 hours.

The accident occurred on a day when Mr Eyres had reported for work at 3.30am after four-and-a-half hours sleep and shared the driving to jobs in Swindon and from there to Sidmouth with Craig Atkinson, his firms managing director. Mr Eyres then agreed to drive the 230 miles back to Bradford.

Mr Eyres later admitted driving at an average speed of more than 80mph on motorways and sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel. This had caused the High Court in Leeds to rule last year that he was responsible for the accident.

Overturning that ruling today, however, Mr Justice Ward said the probability was the accident was caused by Mr Eyres falling asleep, rather than using his phone.

Damages will be reduced by a third, however, because of Mr Eyres contributory negligence in not wearing a seat belt and knowing he was at risk of falling asleep after working continuously for so long.

Ms Cleary explained: Working long hours without breaks harms health and risks accidents through tiredness. The Working Time Regulations cover this area but at present many firms opt out of the stringent rules, or ignore them. Certain industries, such as transport, have partial or total exemptions, and companies can ask employees to opt out personally, for instance.

The courts are certainly getting tougher and a landmark case just last year saw the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) prosecute a company successfully for a death that occurred when an employee was driving outside working hours. This result and the judgement today must bring health and safety to the top of the agenda and firms who encourage long working hours need to really take heed of the warnings.

As today's judgement shows, there can be serious implications for employers who turn a blind eye to the rules. Not only can maximum personal injury claims be awarded but companies can face HSE prosecutions, employment tribunals, and even corporate manslaughter prosecutions if cases are serious enough.

All of these can, of course, lead to huge financial costs, in legal expenses and heavy fines, but also lead to lost business and damage to reputations.