Cabin crew member sues BA over email

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The Independent Online

A senior British Airways cabin crew member sued the airline for libel damages today over a "malicious" claim that he admitted stealing 12 miniatures of whisky.

The alcohol was found in 47-year-old Peter Hughes's luggage during a stop-and-search operation by police and customs at Heathrow at the end of a December 2007 flight from Hong Kong.

When interviewed, Mr Hughes admitted he had not paid for the miniatures and had no receipt, but said he had always meant to - but the bar had shut and he then forgot because he was busy.

But, London's High Court heard, at no stage did he admit theft and he was later released with no further action taken.

Mr Hughes, of Gordon Road, Shepperton, Middlesex, was summarily dismissed by BA in February 2008 but that was rescinded on appeal two months later, although he was demoted from the post of purser which he had held for 14 years.

He complains about an internal email sent by Bill Risbridger, a retired Metropolitan Police detective sergeant who works in corporate security for BA, which said that he was lucky not to have received a caution as he "admittGed to theft".

Mr Risbridger has accepted that this was inaccurate but said it was an honest mistake and that the email was protected by qualified privilege.

Counsel Henry Spooner told Mr Justice Eady, who is hearing the case without a jury, that Mr Hughes was a man of exemplary character who had worked long and loyally for BA for more than 20 years and made one mistake during an impeccable career.

"He has been rock-solid and consistent in his insistence that he behaved entirely honestly."

He said that Mr Hughes was not a "gold-digger" but simply wanted to clear his name.

Mr Spooner claimed the email was the product of malice on the part of Mr Risbridger who was clearly disappointed that the police had, in his view, let Mr Hughes off.

Manuel Barca, counsel for Mr Risbridger and BA, who deny libel, said that Mr Hughes had twice the maximum amount of miniatures permitted on one leg of a flight under the crew purchase scheme - although it was Mr Hughes's case that he was entitled to them on his interpretation of the rules.

He said that Mr Risbridger had a duty recognised by law to report on the stop-and-search operation internally and had merely made a mistake in expressing himself.

"It might be thought a careless characterisation, particularly from a former policeman with 30 years' service, but Mr Risbridger cannot be treated as though he was a criminal lawyer making a legal submission or a serving police officer making a formal report to the Crown Prosecution Service."

He said that Mr Hughes had been seeking damages from the beginning, but the airline had refused his offer to settle the claim - which he dismissed as without merit - for £7,000.

The hearing, which is expected to last up to five days, was adjourned until tomorrow.