A train driver who was sacked after leaving a spider skin and snake skin in a co-worker’s pigeonhole was unfairly sacked, a tribunal has ruled.
Jonathan Richardson pranked his colleague by placing a tarantula in a female driver’s pigeonhole after she admitted a fear of them, but the joke backfired when the woman reported him to bosses, resulting in him losing his job on the grounds of bullying.
But an employment tribunal has now ruled this was the wrong track to take and that, although the victim was genuinely left distressed, the intention was a harmless prank.
The panel heard how Mr Richardson, who had been a train driver for more than 20 years, was working at West Midlands trains when the incident occurred last year.
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It was during a conversation with the female - identified only as Driver A in the proceedings - that she admitted that insects made her “squeamish”, which Richardson admitted “planted a seed” in his mind to play a prank by placing a shed tarantula skin in her pigeonhole.
The arachnids periodically shed their entire outer layer, and at first glance this bears an extreme resemblance to a living, breathing creature.
The tribunal report said: “[Mr Richardson] sought to play a prank on her by placing the [tarantula] exoskeleton in her pigeonhole.
“[He] had hoped to elicit a reaction of momentary shock, followed by light-hearted relief on realisation that the object was merely a shed skin and not a live tarantula.”
The report added that Driver A was “distressed by the episode and couldn’t deal with the exoskeleton”, requiring a colleague to remove it from her pigeonhole.
When the pair next met, Mr Richardson discussed his prank with Driver A, who called him a ‘f****** twat’. She suggested she would report him to HR after he implied he might pull a similar prank with a snake skin.
This eventually transpired after he followed through on his suggestion, leaving the reptile skin in her work storage area a few weeks later.
Mr Richardson was hauled before a disciplinary panel by West Midlands Trains, following this, at which he said he hadn’t understood his colleague’s “genuine upset” over the prank and that he’d assumed her response had been playful.
Driver A told her employer: “I thought the situation was dealt with…but finding the snake skin has made me feel apprehensive and I have felt my concentration has been off the last few days.”
She added: "He thought it would be a joke and it's only a spider… I really don’t like spiders and had to ask friends at work if they can remove it.”
When asked if she had felt “intimidated, bullied or harassed” by Mr Richardson, Driver A answered: “All the above.”
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“After telling him once already, it’s horrible, I don’t expect to come to work and there be a tarantula skin in my pigeon hole, I really don’t like them and I shouldn’t have to deal with that”, she said.
Mr Richardson offered his “sincere apologies” to Driver A but his remorse wasn’t enough to prevent him being sacked for gross misconduct. Bosses told him his prank had caused Driver A enough shock that it could have affected her job performance and therefore put the public at risk.
He launched employment tribunal proceedings after unsuccessfully appealing his dismissal with his employer, and has now emerged victorious.
Upholding his claims, Employment Judge Matthew Hunt said: “All parties appreciated what a prank was. Its purpose is to elicit a short-lived reaction of shock or surprise, followed by some sort of feeling of relief and good humour.
“A loose parallel in this case is planting the sort of rubber spider that is no doubt still available in any toy shop on someone’s shoulder.
“By saying this, I don’t intend to trivialise Driver A’s upset and fully appreciate that in this case the exoskeleton was genuine and well capable of causing greater shock.
“I simply wish to demonstrate that a prank is a common and well-understood phenomenon.”
Judge Hunt went on: “[The company] in this case took [Mr Richardson’s] pranks as being intended, or capable of, inducing some sort of lasting state of considerable shock in Driver A, sufficient to potentially lead to catastrophic accident or significant business interruption.
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“The sort of prank performed was plainly very ill-judged but extremely unlikely in reality to have led to such serious impacts.
“They didn’t involve any risk of physical harm to Driver A, they were not of an abusive nature, they were largely harmless, childish pranks. The second prank was by all accounts considerably less spooky than the first.
“Unfortunately for all, Driver A had far greater a reaction than he had anticipated.”
Compensation for Mr Richardson will be decided at a later date.