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Train driver who played tarantula prank on colleague was wrongly sacked

The rail worker had not anticipated his colleague becoming distressed when he left the spider skin for her to find
The rail worker had not anticipated his colleague becoming distressed when he left the spider skin for her to find - tenra/iStockphoto

A train driver who put a tarantula exoskeleton in a colleague’s pigeonhole was wrongly sacked over the prank, a tribunal ruled, as it awarded him more than £22,000 in compensation.

Jonathan Richardson’s antics were deemed to be humorous pranks at an employment tribunal, and a judge ruled he should be reinstated in his role at West Midlands Trains.

The 48-year-old played the joke with spider remains after a female driver admitted the creatures made her “squeamish”, it was heard.

Mr Richardson was trying to elicit “momentary shock” followed by “light-hearted relief” from his colleague but had not anticipated her becoming distressed, the hearing was told.

He followed up with a snake-skin prank, even after she had threatened to report him to their bosses.

Jonathan Richardson played the joke on his fellow worker after she admitted that spiders made her 'squeamish'
Jonathan Richardson played the joke on his fellow worker after she admitted that spiders made her 'squeamish' - Solent News & Photo Agency

Mr Richardson was fired for gross misconduct after rail bosses concluded he was guilty of bullying.

But after an employment judge concluded the pranks were not “abusive” but merely “childish” and “largely harmless”, he was awarded £22,571, plus £704 per week until his reinstatement.

The tribunal in Watford heard that Mr Richardson, who had more than 20 years’ experience as a train driver, started working for the firm in 2018.

In mid-2022, he had a conversation in the dining room at work with a female colleague identified only as Driver A, in which she indicated a dislike of insects and spiders.

‘Light-hearted relief’

The tribunal heard that this conversation “planted a seed” in Mr Richardson’s head and that he decided to play a joke involving the exoskeleton of a tarantula – the spider’s hard exterior that it has to shed periodically in order to grow.

“[Mr Richardson] sought to play a prank on her by placing the [tarantula] exoskeleton in her pigeonhole,” the tribunal heard.

“[He] had hoped to elicit a reaction of momentary shock, followed by light-hearted relief on realisation that the object was merely a shed skin and not a live tarantula.

“Whatever [his] intentions, Driver A was distressed by the episode and couldn’t deal with the exoskeleton; she required a colleague to clear it from her pigeonhole.”

‘Genuine upset’

The tribunal heard Mr Richardson raised the prank when he next met Driver A and she called him a “f------ t—”, after which he suggested he might do something similar with a snake-skin, and she replied that she would report him.

The hearing was told Mr Richardson believed the tone of this conversation had been “jokey”, that being called a “t—” was “playful”, and that he had not understood Driver A’s “genuine upset”.

She also later described the exchange as “over-the-top banter”, the hearing was told, but the next month, when he placed a snake-skin in her pigeonhole, she reported him to her boss. When asked if she felt “intimidated, bullied or harassed”, Driver A told the tribunal: “All the above.”

Guilty of bullying

At a disciplinary meeting in September, Mr Richardson offered his “sincere apologies” to Driver A but was sacked for gross misconduct after the company concluded he was guilty of bullying.

After an unsuccessful appeal against his dismissal, Mr Richardson took the company to the tribunal claiming unfair and wrongful dismissal.

Upholding his claims, employment judge Matthew Hunt said: “The sort of prank performed… was plainly very ill-judged but extremely unlikely in reality to have led to such serious impacts.

“They didn’t involve any risk of physical harm to Driver A, they were not of an abusive nature, they were largely harmless, childish pranks. The second prank was by all accounts considerably less spooky than the first.

“[Mr Richardson] played two childish pranks, involving placing, firstly, a tarantula’s shed exoskeleton, and, subsequently, a snake-skin in a colleague’s pigeonhole.

“Unfortunately for all, Driver A had far greater a reaction than he had anticipated.”

No animosity whatsoever

Ordering his reinstatement, he added: “[Mr Richardson] understands Driver A’s concerns and stated on oath that he held no animosity whatsoever towards her, fully intended to apologise to her again once the proceedings were concluded, whatever the outcome, and in future would never conduct any more pranks at work as he would not wish to jeopardise his career.

“Were his conduct at any point to again fall below the expected standards, that would be able to be dealt with through [the rail firm]’s disciplinary process.”

He was awarded £22,571.22 for his loss of earnings up until July 2023 and will be paid £704.99 a week from then, until his reinstatement.