Wincanton plc v Atkinson UKEAT/0040/11

Mr Atkinson and Mr Marrison were employed by Wincanton plc (“Wincanton”) as HGV drivers. Wincanton paid for the drivers’ annual licence renewal fee, but it was the employees’ responsibility to organise the renewal of their licences.  

During a biannual licence check, Wincanton discovered that Mr Atkinson and Mr Marrison’s licences had expired. Both were suspended and disciplinary hearings were held.  

Wincanton summarily dismissed Mr Atkinson and Mr Marrison for gross misconduct due to the “potentially serious adverse impact” of driving without licences. Both drivers brought claims for unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal.  

The Tribunal held that the dismissals were unfair, partly because the employees had faced no actual consequences as a result of failing to renew their licences and therefore the employer’s principal justification was “almost entirely hypothetical”. Wincanton appealed the decision.  

The EAT overturned the Tribunal’s decision. It held that it was fair for Wincanton to consider the potentially (horrific) criminal and commercial consequences, even if they never materialised.

To follow the Tribunal’s decision would mean that employees who behaved negligently and breached their employment contracts, could not be fairly dismissed if the illegal act were to have no repercussions for the employer. The EAT found that the dismissals were within the band of reasonable responses and were therefore, fair.

Comment

This decision serves as a useful reminder that employers are entitled to consider “serious adverse consequences” that may arise from an employees negligence and can fairly dismiss the employee even if those consequences never arise.