Nurse wins right to have unfair dismissal claim reassessed

Altnagelvin Hospital
Altnagelvin Hospital

A nurse sacked over the use of a hospital inhaler for suspected asthma has won the right to have her unfair dismissal claim reassessed.

Senior judges on Monday set aside an industrial tribunal’s decision to dismiss Caroline Connolly’s case against the Western Health and Social Care Trust and ordered a fresh hearing of her grievance.

Ms Connolly, 33, was dismissed from her position as a staff nurse at Londonderry’s Altnagelvin Hospital in June 2013 for gross misconduct by unauthorised use or removal of property.

The Court of Appeal heard she claims to have felt the onset of an asthma attack while on duty the previous October.

Having left her own inhaler in the car, she lifted one from a medicine room and took about five puffs before leaving it sitting on a desk, according to her account.

On disclosing her actions to another senior nurse two days later, the incident was reported to an emergency care and medicine coordinator.

Ms Connolly was suspended pending an investigation into concerns which also involved an alleged argument with a colleague.

She was summarily dismissed following a disciplinary hearing which focused on the charge of removing the inhaler from ward stock for her own use.

A letter informing her of the outcome stated that from her response to questions “it was clear that you were not suffering from a full-blown acute asthma attack”.

An appeal panel backed the finding that her conduct constituted gross misconduct.

Ms Connolly took her claim for unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal that identified grave concerns about the investigation.

The focus of the probe appeared to have been substantially distracted from the inhaler incident by detail of other workplace conflicts, the court heard.

However, the tribunal concluded that the Trust had fairly sanctioned her dismissal.

Ruling on Ms Connolly’s appeal, Lord Justices Weir, Gillen and Weatherup held that the tribunal did not adequately address the problems in the case.

They identified failures to consider the unsatisfactory investigation, and a persistent lack of clarity about what exactly was alleged against the nurse.

Lord Justice Weir concluded that the tribunal’s decision that the appeal hearing had restored fairness was unsupported by available material pointing in the opposite direction.

He said: “The decision was in that sense perverse.”

The judge confirmed: “We order that the decision of the tribunal be set aside and that the matter be remitted to a differently constituted tribunal for rehearing.”