Postmaster loses court challenge to dismissal

A postmaster, whose son was kidnapped at gunpoint and taken hostage, has lost his appeal over the subsequent termination of his employment.

The “dreadful” kidnapping incident, which happened in June 2011 when Tom Kelleher was in Spain with his wife, had “life-changing” implications for Mr Kelleher and his family, the Court of Appeal said.

Mr Kelleher’s son Tom Jr, driving his father’s car, had just arrived at the rear of the post office at Newcastlewest on June 28, 2011, when he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held hostage, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan said.

Mr Kelleher had left another son, Ronan, and two employees in charge of the post office. The staff, “who obviously feared for Tom Jr’s life”, agreed to hand over €105,000 ransom demand at a specified location to the kidnappers. Tom Jr was released unhurt but the incident lead to a disciplinary process which lead to Mr Kelleher’s employment as postmaster being terminated and a finding by the company that he was contractually liable to repay half of the missing money.

This all came as a “terrible blow” to Mr Kelleher, who had served as postmaster for 19 years, had built and owned the post office premises, and whose wife and son were employed there.

His salary was stopped on June 30, 2011, when he was suspended and he has been dependent on social security since. After the High Court dismissed Mr Kelleher’s challenge to An Post’s actions, he appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The three-judge court yesterday unanimously ruled An Post was entitled to terminate Mr Kelleher’s employment for reasons including his failure to follow its security procedures.

However, An Post was not entitled to unilaterally decide he must repay to it some half of the €105,000 his staff had handed over to the kidnappers, the court found. After gardaí recovered some of the money, An Post sought repayment of €31,250.

Mr Kelleher disputed An Post’s claim his contractual terms required he pay that sum and the correct approach was for An Post to have sued him for that sum as unliquidated damages for alleged breach of contract, Mr Justice Hogan said.

Earlier in the judgment, the judge noted, after the kidnapping incident, An Post “very properly” expressed sympathy to Mr Kelleher but also outlined a number of issues of concern.

While Mr Kelleher initially disputed various claims by the company, he accepted the substance of the case alleged against him by An Post in an October 2011 letter, the judge said.

He could not dispute the post office staff in June 2011 were not properly instructed as to basic security precautions and he had failed to give them the relevant security number to contact in the event of a hostage taking. He also could not dispute he had improperly accessed €12,000 just prior to going on holiday in June 2011, the judge said.

While having immense sympathy for Mr Kelleher over this “tragic outcome” as a result of “terrible misfortune”, there was no breach of fair procedures, or bias or prejudgment, by An Post which was entitled to terminate Mr Kelleher’s contract, he ruled.


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