The departure of a key staff member is often a fractious moment, particularly if they are intent on joining a rival. However, as a High Court defamation case showed, it is vital for employers to keep a level head and to avoid making public statements that they might later regret.
The case concerned a foster carer who was under contract to an agency. After she gave notice that she intended to resign and join a rival business, an anonymous letter was received by the local authority. It was the woman’s case that the letter alleged that she was guilty of very harsh and rough treatment of children under her care and that she was greedy, selfish and motivated solely be money.
The letter was said to have resulted in her de-registration as a carer and the removal from her home of children she had been looking after. She had suffered great hurt, distress and financial loss. She had in fact been regularly commended for the quality of her care and the allegations made in the letter were entirely false.
Solicitors launched proceedings against the agency on her behalf, claiming that it was the source of the letter and that its contents breached the Data Protection Act 1998 and amounted to defamation and malicious falsehood. The agency denied that it bore any responsibility for the letter’s publication. However, almost a year after the proceedings were issued, the agency settled the woman’s claim in its entirety. It agreed to pay her substantial damages, together with her legal costs.