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Brain surgeon accused of fleeing to holiday island was unfairly dismissed

A brain surgeon was unfairly dismissed after he was prevented from returning to work following a sabbatical in the Cayman Islands, an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) judge has ruled.

James Akinwunmi told an employment tribunal that NHS emergency patients were turned away at his hospital while fellow neurosurgeons, who were on call, treated private patients.

According to the Brighton & Hove News, he reported that other consultants fraudulently claimed double pay, but his complaints were ignored by bosses at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH) as his managers and colleagues closed ranks to force him out of his role.

After the neurosurgeon blew the whistle, he took unpaid sabbatical leave. Although this had been approved by the trust, BSUH then accused him of fleeing to the Cayman Islands – where he has a practice – which caused him to miss important meetings. Akinwunmi was subsequently dismissed in October 2014. 

Akinwunmi, who had previously been a doctor for a Formula 1 team, argued that the hostile working environment made it impossible for him to return to work. He added that his fragmented working relationships with his bosses were worsened by constant questioning over claims he had accidentally removed a healthy portion of a patient’s brain during surgery. A 2011 High Court ruling had found that this was a one-off mistake that should not have triggered restrictions on his practice.

Some of Akinwunmi’s fellow consultants had also claimed that he had issued threats of violence against them. No evidence was found to support these claims, and the neurosurgeon was left concerned that it would be unsafe for him and his patients were he to return to work.

The surgeon won his unfair dismissal case at an employment tribunal in London in 2016, but claims that Akinwunmi, who is black, had suffered as a result of his whistleblowing and suffered victimisation on racial grounds were rejected.

BSUH appealed, calling it a perverse decision and claiming that Akinwunmi had contributed to his dismissal by being off work for nearly two years.

Last week, EAT judge Elisabeth Laing upheld the finding of unfair dismissal. “The employment tribunal said – and this is an important finding – that [BSUH] should have taken responsibility for improving the working environment,” said Laing. “The fact that matters had got to this stage reflected extremely poorly on [BSUH’s] management. It was clear [BSUH] had known about the breakdown of working relationships for a long time and there was no evidence of any efforts to improve them.”

BSUH had not responded to People Management’s request for comment at the time of writing. However, shortly after the original tribunal decision, the trust told The Mirror that it “disagrees with the unfair dismissal decision”. 

Added: 06-07-2017
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