Road worker wins $32k against employer after crash

A road worker has won nearly $32,000 against a former employer for unjust dismissal after he crashed a company vehicle.

Nearly half the sum awarded was for the “hurt and humiliation” Paul Tulafono was subjected to when he was suspended from work and eventually fired, says a decision by the Employment Relations Authority released this month.

Tulafono worked 17 continuous months as a road-marking assistant and driver for Combined Road and Traffic Services, with offices in Rotorua, Mt Maunganui and Christchurch.

A company reference letter described him as “consistently hardworking, honest and reliable”, and someone who “didn’t leave the dirty jobs to someone else”.

But the tables turned after he crashed a company vehicle.

In early July 2019, Tulafono’s mother fell ill and went to hospital. He prepared to travel urgently to Auckland to be with his family, and was returning the company vehicle and tools to the yard for the weekend when he crashed into another car.

The accident prompted a company investigation and disciplinary process. For weeks, Tulafono was told there was no work available, even though his team members were out working and wondering where he was.

By the end of the month, he was served a termination notice telling him his last day was in 14 working days’ time.

The Employment Relations Authority found Tulafono’s termination was unjustified, and said Combined did not give him the opportunity to give feedback on his work and dismissal even though it was a company with the resources to do it.

Authority member Claire English also threw out Combined’s argument that Tulafono had resigned, was never a permanent employee, and was not proactive in seeking work at the company.

“Combined’s actions were not what a fair and reasonable employer would have done in all the circumstances,” she said.

Tulafono’s dismissal was a “flawed process … caused by Combined’s decision not to communicate with him openly and honestly” about what work was available and why he wasn’t given work.

The authority said Combined director Dean Lewis clearly held an “adverse view” of Tulafono and remained, in his own words, “livid” about the accident after a gap of two years.

“[Lewis] repeatedly accused Mr Tulafono of theft, on the unfounded basis that Mr Tulafono drove a work vehicle on a Saturday morning on one occasion,” the decision read.

English also dismissed Combined’s submission that it has suffered distress because of the accident, because “a company cannot suffer personal distress”.

Combined was ordered to pay Tulafono $15,000 as compensation for the hurt and humiliation around his unjust dismissal, and $14,470.55 in unpaid wages and lost remuneration,. including interest.

The company was also fined $5000 for not acting in good faith under the Employment Act, to be split between Tulafono and the Crown.

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