THREE nurses who were sacked after a mentally ill patient was allegedly assaulted at a hospital have won a two-year battle to clear their names.
Sharon Little, Martin Smith and Tim Spear were dismissed by the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust for gross misconduct after a violent patient was forcibly restrained on Harvest Ward at Bodmin Hospital.
An employment tribunal judge has now ruled the nurses were unfairly sacked and said it was "extraordinary and unreasonable'' for the trust to believe the word of a dangerous and disruptive psychiatric patient over the nurses' testimony.
Judge Nicholas Roper said the sackings effectively ended the careers of three people who between them had 50 years' experience of caring for the mentally ill and unblemished disciplinary records.
The incident happened in February 2012. In the early hours a male patient, who had a history of violence and aggression and was perceived as a danger to women, was acting violently and when a staff team which included Mr Smith and Mr Spear was unable to calm him down, the patient was physically restrained.
Mr Spear had been hit in the face and Mr Smith was attacked with a chair.
Mrs Little was the nurse in charge and, although not physically involved in restraining the patient herself, had authorised the procedure.
The patient's mother later complained that he had sustained injuries to his ribs and an ankle.
An investigation and disciplinary hearing by the foundation trust decided the patient had been assaulted, and Mrs Little failed to complete an appropriate report into the alleged assault.
Mrs Little contended that she did not report the incident as she did not believe the patient had been assaulted.
Judge Roper, finding that the three nurses had been unfairly dismissed, said there were no reasonable grounds for sacking them for gross misconduct.
He criticised the foundation trust for believing the evidence of the mentally ill patient over that of the experienced nurses, who were immediately suspended and who gave their evidence more than a year after the incident had taken place.
"The claimants were criticised for being inconsistent in their recollections, and this aspect featured in the decision to dismiss them," he said.
"In contrast, the patient was found to be credible, and his evidence preferred to that of the three claimants. In my judgement, that is an extraordinary and unreasonable conclusion. [The patient] was an inconsistent and unreliable witness. He is a very ill psychiatric patient who is dangerous and disruptive, and whose evidence could be shown to be materially incorrect in a number of respects."
Mrs Little said she and her colleagues had undergone considerable stress over the past two years, but were now glad that the tribunal had proved they should not have been dismissed.
"It has left me in a position where I have to rethink my future, because the trust has a monopoly on mental health provision in the county, and it is now impossible for me to find a comparable job within mental health," she said.
"It has taken an impartial judge to say that we were telling the truth about what actually happened, and all three of us feel vindicated in the actions we took that night."
Despite the tribunal's ruling, however, the trust's nurse executive, Sharon Linter, said she stood by its decision.
"The decision to dismiss three members of clinical staff was made following an internal investigation conducted in line with the trust's agreed employment policies," she said.
"In order to ensure the safety of its patients, who are often very vulnerable, the trust believes the dismissal of these staff members was fair and appropriate."