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CLAIM BY FIREMAN HARBOUR BOARD SUED A claim by a workman against an employer for £6*o damages on the ground of alleged libel and slander was heard in the Supreme Court to-day by Mr. Justice Callan and a jury. The plaintiff was Lawrence Joseph Keenan. fireman (Mr. Haigh and Mr. A. K. Turner;, and the defendant the Auckland Harbour Board (Mr. Hamer). Plaintiff's case was that he was libelled in a report to the Auckland Manpower Officer from a servant of the board that he had put sand and shell in certail oil cups of a dredge, thus deliberately attempting to sabotage the work of the dredge. The defence was denial of publication, that the statements made were privileged, and that any such statements, if made, were made without malice. Mr. Haigh, in opening, said the action was a claim for defamation of character. Keenan entered the board's employ in October, ]943, as a fireman on suction dredge No. 2. The only thing he had to sell was his abour in the capacity of a fireman, and if he were given a bad reputation he suffered loss of employment and, probably, eventually no employment at all. The defendant board, in statements in a letter to the district manpower officer at Auckland on January 23, asked permission to terminate Keenan's employment, stating that he had been guilty of sabotage and had attempted to wreck the dredge. This dredge at the time was under naval contract, and it could be imagined how, if justified, dismissal in such circumstances, in wartime, would affect a man's reputation, and that it would justify a criminal prosecution.

On the same day, added counsel, the statement was repeated by Mr. Norman A. Taylor, chief clerk for the board, to Mr. Ashton, the secretary of the Harbour Board Employees' Union. Since then the board had been given an opportunity of withdrawing the statements and admitting they were untrue, but had not made the slightest attempt to do so. Actually, he submitted, the board's attitude had aggravated the position. He suggested that when the evidence was heard the jury would

be satisfied that this action was the only thing Keenan could do to clear his name. The claim for £650 damages comprised £525 for libel in the letter to the manpower officer and £125 for slander in the statement to Mr. Ashton. Plaintiff's Case Outlined Outlining the plaintiff's case, Mr. Haigh said evidence would shewthat Keenan was employed by the board in October, 1943. Three weeks later he was appointed by the crew of the suction dredge as their spokesman about complaints, and he had occasion several times to see Mr. Tavlor In such capacity. On January 23 Keenan was told he hac been suspended for a cause he would hear of later. He went to his union secretary, Mr. Ashton, who saw Mr. Taylor, and was told Keenan had been guilty of serious misconduct and putting sand and shell in the oil pipes of the dredge. Mr. Ashton told Keeqan, who said the charge was false. Keenan went to the manpower officer and put his case before him. The manpower office and Mr. Ashtcn made an investigation on the dredge, and -the manpower officer, as the result of that investigation, declined to terminate Keenan's employment with the board. It was also directed that Keenan should not be subject to any loss of pay while suspended. When Keenan sought to return to his job he was told there was an appeal being made against the manpower officer's decision, counsel continued. No appeal was made, and Keenan again reported for work and was told the board was applying to have him transferred to work as a deck hand instead of fireman. This application was made and was refused. The board appealed to the Manpower Appeal Committee, and its appeal was dismissed. Again Keenan reported for work, and was old he was going to be put on paintng and chipping. Keenan wanted his job back as a fireman in order to clear his reputation, and went to the manpower officer, who directed his employment by the board as a fireman. . On June 25 Keenan got his job back as fireman en the dredge. Manpower Regulations Thomas J. Fielder, assistant manpower officer at Auckland, stated that on January 23 he received a letter from the Auckland Harbour Board, signed D. Holderness. engineer, stating a desire to terminate plaintiff's employment. Asked to produce the letter, witness said he would like the Court's direction. He read a direction from the Minister stating there was no objection to the letter being read subject to the ruling of the Bench. Mr. Hamer claimed that on public policy the letter was privileged and not available as evidence.

His Honor over-ruled the objec tion. but noted it.

The letter, which was read, made charges against plaintiff on the lines previously stated. Witness ■ then detailed action by the Manpower Office, and correspondence with the board as stated by Mr. Haigh.

In reply to Mr. Hamer the witness said many employers made charges against employees. It was necessary under the regulations for them to do so, and to state their reasons for requesting termination of employment, It would be a breach of the regulations if employers gave false reasons. It would have been competent for plaintiff, when on suspension, to have taken a job elsewhere as fireman. There was a strong demand for firemen, and in view of the result of the investigation there would have been no bad mark against plaintiff in the manpower records. (Proceeding.)

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Bibliographic details

LIBEL ACTION, Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 190, 13 August 1945

Word Count

LIBEL ACTION Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 190, 13 August 1945

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