Riddick v Thames Board Mills Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
Judgment Date11 March 1977
Judgment citation (vLex)[1977] EWCA Civ J0311-8
Docket Number1969 H. No. 98
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Date11 March 1977
Robert Riddick
Thames Board Mills Limited

[1977] EWCA Civ J0311-8


The Master of The Rolls (Lord Denning)

Lord Justice Stephenson and

Lord Justice Waller

1969 H. No. 98

In The Supreme Court of Judicature

Court of Appeal

On Appeal from the High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division

(Mr. Justice Caulfield)

THE PLAINTIFF (RESPONDENT) appeared in person.

MR. A. HOOLAMAN Q.C. and MR. J.VILLE WILLIAMS (instructed by Messrs. Stanleys of Simpson, North, Solicitors, London) appeared on behalf of the Defendants (Appellants).


It is eight years ago now since Robert Riddick was dismissed from his employment. Yet the manner of it has reverberated through the Law Courts ever since. He was a shift engineer in a mill at. Workington in Cumberland. It was run by a subsidiary of Unilever, called Thames Board Mills Limited, Tree trunks went in at one end. Cardboard came out at the other end. Robert Riddick had only been with the Company for about eighteen months. Previously since boyhood he had been with the Workington Steel Hills for twenty-eight years. He had work with them which was within his capacity, but he then became redundant. At the age of forty-four he moved to this new job of shift engineer at Thames Board Mills. But after eighteen months his employers thought that he was not up to it. They had nothing against him personally, He was a man of excellent character, who tried his very best. But they felt that he simply could not measure up to the responsibilities of a shift engineer. So they decided to terminate his services with them and give him two months' salary in lieu of notice. It is the manner of his dismissal which has caused all the trouble.


On 28th February, 1969 he was sitting in his office at the mill. It was 2.00 p.m. at the end of his shift when he was not due to come on again for four days. Two senior officers came in. One was Mr. Fleming, the Chief Engineer. The other was Mr. Smith, the personnel manager. They told him that he had finished his last shift with the Company because the Company were dispensing with his services from that time onwards, but they explained that he would be paid two months' salary, He asked why he was being dismissed. They said it was because he was not up to the required standard, that he had been warned several times to improve, but he had not managed to do so. They helped him collect his few personal belongings. They took him down withthem to a waiting car. The driver was a security officer in uniform. They sat him between then in the back of the car. They drove him to the security gate, where they transferred him and his belongings to his own car. He asked them whether his dismissal was connected with a recent affair in which two officers of the Company had been accused of serious misconduct, and had been dismissed. Was he suspected of anything similar? They said it was not. It was only that he had been unable to fill the job of Shift Engineer.


The news of his dismissal spread through the works like wild-fire. Many associated it with the other two who had been guilty of grave misconduct. Outside the works, too, in the small town of Workington (where he had lived all his life), the word went round. Rumours were rife. The whole mill was shocked.


The effect on Robert Riddick was immediate and lasting. He has never got over it. He was greatly distressed. His health has been affected. He has not been able to obtain work. He has been on social security ever since.


Later that year (1969) he went to solicitors and brought an action against his employers, Thames Board Kills Limited, claiming damages for "wrongful arrest and false imprisonment". The action was in the list to be heard at the Carlisle Assizes on 17th January, 1971. But it was settled on these terms endorsed on counsels' briefs: "£251 in Court to be paid out to plaintiff's solicitors and costs on party and party basis to be taxed in default of agreement, this sum having been accepted before the hearing. Allegations of wrongful arrest and false imprisonment against defendant unreservedly withdrawn."


Mr. Riddick was very discontented. He had wanted his case decided by a judge and jury: and here he had come away with virtually no redress. Even the £251 would, go doubt, go in thecosts of his own solicitors and counsel.


So on 25th February, 1972 Mr. Riddick started another action against his employers, followed by a Statement of Claim on 5th February, 1975. This time he claimed damages for "defamation flowing from the wrongful manner" in which he was dismissed. He acted in person. There is no legal aid available for actions for defamation. The employers applied to strike out on the ground that it covered the self-same ground as the previous action. Both the Registrar and the Judge struck it out. On appeal on 5th November, 1973 the Court of Appeal also struck it out. But in the course of the judgment, Lord Justice Megaw said that there was one matter which he might raise in fresh proceedings and that was a claim for defamation in respect of a memorandum of 16th April, 1969. It was an internal memorandum made by one servant of the employers to another. Mr. Riddick only got to know of this memorandum because it had been disclosed on discovery in the first action.


Encouraged by this suggestion, on 19th December, 1974 Mr. Riddick issued yet another writ against his employers and delivered a Statement of Claim. This contained a lot of the old matter and that was struck out on 21st July, 1975 by Mr. Justice Faulks. But he allowed the part to remain which was based on the memorandum of 16th April, 1969.


This last action was tried before Mr. Justice Caulfield and a jury at Carlisle in May 1976. Mr. Riddick again appeared in person. It lasted five days. The jury awarded Mr. Riddick £15,000 damages. The Judge entered judgment against the employers for that sum. They appeal to this Court. I must say that £15,000 seems an extraordinarily large sum in respect of an internal memorandum. So I must tell how it came about.


Mr. Riddick's employment with the company prior to hisdismissal. The mill at Workington was under a General Manager, Mr. Scoble. The head office of the employers was at Purfleet in Essex, 300 miles away from Workington. The officers at each end are in constant telephone communication with one another: as well as inter-departmental memoranda. The staff personnel manager at head office was Mr. Rixon, who was assisted by a colleague, Mr. Fathers.


The Company have a system whereby the work of all servants in responsible positions is "appraised" regularly by a senior officer: and a confidential report is made upon him. Mr. Riddick' work was "appraised" accordingly: and he was shown the reports upon him. On 17th September, 1968, after Mr. Riddick had served one year as shift-plant engineer, the Chief Engineer at Workington, Mr. Fleming, made this report on him: "his performance began promisingly, but crumbled rather suddenly in Hay 1968 when he was taken off shift at his own request, and having clearly lost his nerve … His problem appears one of constant apprehension … He discusses problems a lot seeking reassurance … He may yet do very well when his confidence builds up …"


This appraisal was shown to Mr. Riddick who made this comment: "He agrees he worries too much, but says he is now happy in the job, expects to maintain his performance."


On 15th November, 1968, Mr. Fleming, the Chief Engineer, felt that Mr. Riddick's performance had not improved, as had been hoped. So he saw Mr. Riddick and gave him a warning and made a report of it to the General Manager at Workington, Mr. Scoble. The warning was in these words: "To come to the point, I am not satisfied with your performance as a Shift-Plant Engineer … Unless you pull your socks up very shortly, you and T.B.M. must part company."


On 20th February, 1969, Mr. Fleming made a written reportto the General Manager at Workington, Mr. Scoble: "I have to report that he has failed to fulfil the requirements of a Shift -A Engineer and request that I be authorised to replace him. In essence Mr. Riddick lacks the confidence or ability to be a Shift Engineer."


On getting the report, the General Manager at Workington telephoned to the Head Office at Purfleet asking for authority to dispense with the services of Mr. Riddick, He spoke to the Staff Personnel Manager, a Mr. Rixon, who made this reply in a memorandum: "Since it appears that he has not been negligent in his duties, but rather that the job is too big for him, I would suggest that we be a little more generous than we need to be … I suggest, therefore, that we give him two months' salary, but not expect him to report for duty during those two months."


On 28th February, 1969, Mr. Riddick was dismissed in the humiliating circumstances which I have already described. The General Manager at Workington was away at the time. But, when he came back, he made this apology to Mr. Riddick, on 5th March, 1969: "I was … extremely sorry to hear that you had been escorted from the works to the Security Gate, i.e. the Car Park, after this interview, and would say immediately that this was a totally wrong decision, and you can rest assured that this matter has been very fully aired in private discussions here. This type of action is only carried out by our Company if people are guilty of serious misconduct of any sort within the confines of the plant and I would therefore offer an apology on behalf of my colleagues for their somewhat misguided enthusiasm in this particular instance."


The Chief Engineer gave Mr. Riddick a good reference, saying that he was extremely conscientious, kindly and personable/ and was of excellent character and integrity.


The memorandum of 16th April, 1969. Soon after hisDismissal. Mr. Riddick went to see his...

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