Dismissed for fighting at work: 4 shocking cases
Dismissing an employee for fighting at work isn’t always a fair and reasonable action by an employer. That’s because in many cases, there are extenuating circumstances that could see the Fair Work Commission rule the dismissal as unfair. This could include the fact that the dismissed employee was acting in self-defense. Or that the employer acted rashly in dismissing the employee by failing to conduct an adequate workplace investigation.
In this article, we share four unfair dismissal cases involving workers who were dismissed for fighting at work. The violence in some of these fights are truly shocking. You may be surprised at some of the decisions made by the Fair Work Commission. If you want to read about all the particulars of how the Fair Work Commission makes decisions regarding unfair dismissals relating to workplace fights, you can read our detailed article on the issue.
Airport worker is dismissed after being spat on and placed in headlock
The UK unfair dismissal case Alexandru Milea v DHL Services Limited  involved a particularly ugly fight at work between two workers at London’s Gatwick airport. Alexandru Milea had been a heavy goods vehicle driver for DHL Services for six years when in early 2022 he was faced with a difficult situation. This was the result of a co-worker, known only as AT, sending a group WhatsApp message.
“After a huge amount of complaints that came in my name I resign from being manager in Gatwick”. AT said in the message. “As of tomorrow Alex Milea will be in charge of Gatwick. Any problems report to him. Bless you all” Over the next few days, AT turned up to work at Gatwick saying that he wouldn’t perform his duties. That Mr Milea would have to fill in. Then on 17 January, Mr Milea was driving AT back to Gatwick from a meeting when the latter began hurling abuse at him.
AT called Mr Milea his dog, a liar and made threats against him and his family. He then spat on Mr Milea. Forcing him to pull over. That was when AT placed Mr Milea in a headlock and began punching him. Resulting in Mr Milea attempting to push him out of the van.
Employee is dismissed, makes unfair dismissal claim
Following a workplace investigation into the incident, Mr Milea was summarily dismissed by DHL Services. But he soon made an unfair dismissal claim with a UK tribunal, which identified several procedural fairness failures. During the workplace investigation, DHL Services was found to have made no attempt to attain the CCTV footage of the incident. It was also found that the company’s managers had failed to properly investigate who started the fight.
Due to these workplace investigation inadequacies, the tribunal ruled that Mr Milea had been unfairly dismissed. He was awarded £4593.38 (approximately AU$8,000) in compensation.
Marine operator dismissed for fending off choke from co-worker
The unfair dismissal case Fearnley v Tenix Defence Systems  involved one of the more disturbing workplace fights you’ll ever hear about. It all started after marine operator for Tenix Defence Systems, Keith Fearnley, had made a complaint about his co-worker, Mr Bardis. Days later, Mr Fearnley was walking past Mr Bardis when the latter shouted at him. Mr Fearnley, wanting to sort out matters then and there. He stormed right up to Mr Bardis, who threw his welding helmet to the ground and approached his colleague with similar menace.
The duo exchanged some choice words as Mr Bardis pointed his finger furiously, before placing it on Mr Fearnley’s throat. The latter batted it away, and it was then that Mr Bardis attempted to choke Mr Fearnley, who wrested free and landed a series of blows. The fight ended with Mr Bardis sporting a cut below his left eye that required medical attention.
Mr Fearnley argues self-defense and wins unfair dismissal claim
Following a workplace investigation by Tenix, both men were dismissed for taking part in the fight. And Mr Fearnley subsequently made an unfair dismissal claim with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (the predecessor of the Fair Work Commission).
At the unfair dismissal hearing, Tenix said that it had a clear policy outlining that the intimidation or assault of a co-worker is serious misconduct. And that a summary dismissal was therefore the only outcome. However, Mr Fearnley told the AIRC that he had acted in self-defense. “I was scared out of my wits and I wanted to get away, and I felt as though I was fighting for my life,” he said during the hearing.
The AIRC agreed that this was a valid reason for Mr Fearnley to have had engaged in the fight. It therefore ruled his dismissal unfair and ordered reinstatement.
“In general, fighting at the workplace is unacceptable. Involuntary involvement in a fight or involvement for the purposes of self defiance may well be reasonable,”AIRC Vice President.
Security guard loses unfair dismissal case with bogus “post-concussion syndrome” claim
The unfair dismissal case Sheridan v Health Secretary in respect of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District  saw two security guards get into a punch up. Not surprisingly it ended badly for both. Tensions were already simmering between Brett Sheridan and Scott Young when on the night of 27 September 2019 they were forced to work together at Shellharbour Hospital in NSW. The duo had a poor working relationship. This included Mr Sheridan complaining to management that Mr Young was too aggressive with patients. Further that he had spread false rumours about him.
At 10:30 that evening, this poor working relationship escalated into an all-out workplace fight. The duo were escorting a patient to the mental health ward when she attempted to escape. Mr Young quickly grabbed the patient, but also made sure to hurl some choice words at Mr Sheridan for his lack of support. Then, as the duo were walking back after transferring the patient, Mr Young swore at Mr Sheridan, who replied in kind. CCTV footage showed that Mr Young then walked up to his colleague and swung wildly at him, but it wasn’t clear if he actually connected.
That’s when Mr Sheridan put his fists up, preparing for a fight. As Mr Young walked away, Mr Sheridan approached him from behind and unleashed several punches to his head. Nursing staff attempted to separate the duo, but they soon reengaged in fisticuffs.
Employee appeals unfair dismissal at Fair Work Commission
At his unfair dismissal hearing, Mr Sheridan argued that he was merely acting in self-defense. He told the Fair Work Commission that the first blow he absorbed from Mr Young was a concussive one. And he claimed that he couldn’t remember anything after that.
Mr Sheridan also leaned on the fact that Mr Young had previously bullied him, which caused him to enter “fight or flight” mode. He also claimed that the effects of “post-concussion syndrome” caused him to involuntarily engage in the fight. Mr Sheridan also laid blame at the feet of the hospital. Which he said failed to resolve his concerns with Mr Young and had rostered them on the same shift.
Mr Sheridan’s arguments are skewered by the Fair Work Commission
However, the doctor who assessed Mr Sheridan told the FWC that “there was no evidence of a significant head injury” to him. Also, that he wasn’t suffering from amnesia. The doctor also stated that post-concussion syndrome wasn’t a legitimate psychological condition. While the Fair Work Commission agreed that the hospital hadn’t resolved the grievances between the duo, it said that it “does not exonerate Mr Sheridan from his conduct that evening.”
And after reviewing CCTV footage and eye-witness accounts, the Fair Work Commission also found that Mr Sheridan was very much a willing participant in the fight. “While I would not go so far as to suggest that Mr Sheridan was waiting for an opportunity to ‘have a go’ at Mr Young. The impression arising from all of the evidence, including the CCTV footage, is that he was certainly willing to take the opportunity when it was presented,” the Fair Work Commissioner said.
Fair Work Commission rejects the unfair dismissal claim
Based on the doctor’s testimony, the Fair Work Commission dismissed Mr Sheridan’s argument that he was under the involuntary throes of a psychological condition. It also took into account the fact that Mr Sheridan had told nurses after the fight that he didn’t want to cop Mr Young’s bullying anymore. This showed that he was fully aware of the situation.
The Fair Work Commission ruled that Mr Sheridan had taken things “a step too far and he determined, to paraphrase his words, ‘not to stand there and take it”. His unfair dismissal was therefore rejected.
Stevedore goaded into workplace fight by colleague seeking his dismissal
This workplace fight that formed the focus of the unfair dismissal case DP World Sydney Limited v Mr Stephen Lambley . It featured a interesting dimension of manipulation. Stevedore Stephen Lambley had been employed by DP World Sydney for more than 30 years. However in June 2011 he found himself in a workplace fight with co-worker Peter Smith. It all started when the duo exchanged heated insults in the lunch room. Mr Smith, who went by the appropriate nickname “Romper”. Went on to state that he would “cave [Mr Lambley’s] head in,” before goading him to meet him in the car park.
At Mr Lambley’s unfair dismissal hearing, it was revealed that Mr Smith had deliberately goaded Mr Lambley into a fight so as to see him dismissed. And this was evident by his actions in the car park. Mr Lambley kicked things off by throwing a punch at Mr Smith, who didn’t fight back at all. In fact, he didn’t fight back for the entire fight. Even as Mr Lambley punched him in the face, placed him in a head lock, and punched him three more times.
Mr Lambley then threw Mr Smith to the asphalt. Then while he was on the ground, kicked him in the head as hard as possible. He then tried to goad Mr Smith into putting up a fight, before walking away. This all took place while Mr Lambley’s son, who also worked at DP World, was watching. After conducting a workplace investigation into the incident, DP World dismissed Mr Lambley for breaching its zero-tolerance policy with regard to physical and verbal violence.
Mr Lambley appeals dismissal at Fair Work Commission
Following his dismissal, Mr Lambley appealed the decision through the Fair Work Commission. And at his hearing, he argued that he was unfairly dismissed because:
- He had experienced “intense preconceived provocation and goading” from Mr Smith for many years and just prior to the workplace fight.
- During the workplace investigation, DP World hadn’t taken into account all relevant circumstances. This included that Mr Lambley had never been involved in any altercations during his 30 years at the company.
- Mr Lambley and his family were left in a devastating life position due to the dismissal.
Fair Work Commission rules on the case
Considering all these factors, the Fair Work Commission ruled that there was a valid reason for dismissal. However, it also found that Mr Smith had ‘set up’ Mr Lambley so as to make him out as the villain and see him dismissed. The Fair Work Commission therefore ruled that the dismissal was unfair. However, DP World later successfully appealed the decision with the Fair Work Commission Full Bench. It ruled that the dismissal was in fact fair and reasonable.
“If Mr Smith had set up Mr Lambley to engage in this conduct in front of CCTV cameras, it does not in any way excuse Mr Lambley’s conduct. Or suggest that an employer cannot reasonably discipline an employee for the conduct in which they have clearly engaged,” said the Fair Work Commissioner.
Have you been unfairly dismissed for fighting at work?
As we saw in the above cases, there are a range of factors the Fair Work Commission takes into account when considering dismissals stemming from a workplace fight. Making an unfair dismissal claim can be a difficult and complex process. A Whole New Approach is here to help. With a proven success rate in over 16,000 cases, our experienced workplace mediators provide exceptional support to employees who have been unfairly dismissed.
We work to protect your employment rights and ensure a fair outcome. There’s no need to worry about cost. Our services come with a risk-free guarantee – you only pay if we win your case. Book a free initial consultation today to learn about your rights and options. All abandonment of employment issues, casual employee concerns and forced resignation claims call us for advice.
Don’t navigate the aftermath of an unfair dismissal alone. Call us at 1800 333 666 for a confidential discussion.
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