Business Law & Compliance


Meerkat keeper vs monkey handler: Employers should give both participants of a fight same punishment

3 Mins

Caroline Westlake, a meerkat keeper at London Zoo, was dating llama keeper Adam Davies, when she launched a catfight against his ex-girlfriend of five years, Kate Sanders, at a Christmas party.

Westlake, who was subsequently sacked over starting the fight, launched an employment tribunal against the zoo for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination, claiming she had ADHD and dyspraxia.

But despite the tribunal announcing that Westlake was not a victim of disability discrimination, it recently ruled that she was wrongly dismissed – which leaves employers with a rather odd lesson. 

The tribunal had been told the fight began after Westlake had overheard Sanders talking about her in the toilets saying, “Have you seen the state of her?”. It was also suggested that Sanders had accused Westlake of being “mad” and that no-one liked her. Westlake attacked her in the cloakroom, whereby during the fight, Sanders hit Westlake and spat on her while holding her backwards over a balcony.  

But despite also being involved in the violence, Sanders was only given a final written warning and banned from attending company social events.

The tribunal ruled that both women should have been fired as both were responsible for the fight. It also criticised the zoo’s disciplinary process for failing to take into account all the evidence, whereby the zoo differentiated between the two women solely due to the difference in physical injuries sustained.

The panel said the zoo took no account of impartial witnesses who said that Sanders started the second part of the fight. The tribunal noted that the reasons given by the disciplinary chair for the differences were the severity of Sanders’ injury and a “gut feel” that Westlake was the more culpable.

In their judgement, the tribunal panel wrote: “We conclude that no reasonable employer would have reached the decision that the entire responsibility for the incident should be placed at the claimant’s door and that Sanders was not blameworthy. On the independent evidence before the zoo, the only reasonable conclusion was that the incident took place in two parts.

“The first part, it might be reasonably concluded, could have been started either by the claimant hitting Sanders in the face with the glass (as Sanders alleged) or by Sanders hitting the claimant on the jaw (as the claimant alleged).”

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