Scrader Automotive (Pty) Ltd v MIBC (2008 P488/05 (LC)

Principle:

The mere fact that an employee is found to be under the influence of alcohol in the workplace on a particular day does not mean that the only appropriate sanction in every case is dismissal. Each case must be decided on is own merits but, generally speaking, progressive discipline must be applied. This does not mean that it will never be fair for an employer to dismiss an employee for a single instance of being under the influence of alcohol. Whether or not dismissal is a fair sanction in a particular case is an issue that must be decided with due regard to the nature of the employee’s job, his length of service, his disciplinary record, the extent to which he was under the influence of alcohol and other relevant factors.

Facts:

The employee was charged for being under the influence of alcohol and intoxicating substance and was dismissed after being found guilty. A breathalyser test on the employee had been taken which showed that the employee was under the influence of alcohol. The employer testified that it had a zero tolerance policy to being found under the influence of alcohol whilst on duty and that the policy was displayed on the notice board for the entire members of the staff to see. The test conducted revealed that the employee was above the limit of 0.05% mark, being above the red line which was indicated in the glass tube of the breathalyzer. The employee did not dispute the version of the applicant but disputed the charges of intoxication. He testified that he had taken alcohol the previous night and that is why the level of alcohol in his blood stream was high.

At the bargaining council the commissioner held that it was trite law that for an employee to be liable for dismissal due to intoxication, he should, depending on the nature of the job, be so intoxicated that he or she is unable to perform his duties. It was held that driving was not the core function of the employee: his main responsibility was that of a store man and occasionally performed driving duties. The critical part of the commissioner’s finding was that the applicant had failed adduce evidence showing that the employee was so intoxicated to the extent that he was unable to perform his duties as a store man.

On review at the Labour Court, the employer contended that the commissioner misdirected himself in that he approached the case as one where the employee was charged for being drunk, whereas he was charged for being under the influence of intoxicating substance including alcohol. The employer argued that being under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence for the person in the position of the employee whose duties included driving. The representative of the applicant emphasised that the employee could not perform one of his functions - of driving the vehicle because if he was allowed to drive, that could have amounted to a statutory offence which could result in criminal charges if was to be caught driving whilst under the influence of alcohol.

Extract from the judgment:

The main focus of the applicant’s attack on the commissioner’s conclusion is that he failed to draw a distinction between being drunk and intoxication. The applicant contended in this respect that had the commissioner considered the matter as concerning intoxication and not being drunk he would have arrived at a different conclusion. This argument has no merit. The New Shorter Oxford dictionary defines being drunk as:

“Affected by alcohol in the body to such an extent that one is without full or proper control of one’s faculties.”

Thesaurus gives the synonyms of being drunk inter alia as “intoxicated” and under the influence.”

[11]   In Alstom Electrical v NUMSA and Another ( unreported case no JR 955/07), this Court in dealing with the similar issue relied on the Mondi Paper Co v Dlamini (1996) 4 ALL SA 94, the Labour Appeal Court in dealing with facts which were very similar to the facts in the current case quoted with approval from Albertyn and McCairn Alcohol, Employment and Fair Labour Practice at page 97. Patel JA also referred to it in the case of Phalborwa Mining Co Ltd v Cheetham & others [2008] 29 ILJ 306 (LAC).

[12]   In Mondi Paper(supra) the Court in dealing with this issue said:
“Intoxication involves an impairment of the employee’s faculties, discernible effect upon his behaviour beyond the limits of sobriety, not merely the smell of alcohol on his breath.”

The Court at page 97 G-H further said:

“In my opinion, the evidence goes no further than to establish that the Respondent had consumed alcohol and was smelling of alcohol at that time when the tests were taken. The fact that his speech was slurred is, in itself, not indicative of intoxication. It may be an indication of intoxication and it is one of the recognized methods of determining intoxication, but unless one excludes any other possibilities such as tiredness or the fact that the person has the nature of a tendency to slur his speech , it is not in itself proof of intoxication.”

Later on in the same judgment at page 98 H-I the court held that:

“In my view the evidence did not justify a finding that the Respondent was guilty of drunkenness, giving to that word the meaning which one would normally give to it in relation to the person who had consumed alcohol to excess as opposed to one who has merely consumed some alcohol. The offence is not, as I have said, consumption of alcohol or having consumed alcohol before coming on duty, it is one of the drunkenness, and in my view that offence was not proved.”

[13]   Another case which this Court relied on in Alston Electrical is the case of London, Ltd v Bennett 1927 (1) TPD 346 where it is said that:

“An employee’s drunkenness is not a good ground for dismissal only if it is so gross or its results are such as to cause inefficiency in or neglect of the master’s work”

[14]   Recently the issue of being under the influence of alcohol at work received attention in Labour Appeal Court case of National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa v Trentyre (Pty) Ltd and another (unreported case number JA49-05),I quote at length from that judgment because the legal principle to apply and approach to be adopted in as far as applying the facts to it is well set out in the judgement.

In Trentyre’s case (supra) Zondo JP in agreeing with the conclusion of Patel JA, set the broad principle of the law regarding intoxication or being under the influence of alcohol as follows:

“… it needs to be pointed out that it is not our law that. the mere fact that an employee is found to be under the influence of liquor in the workplace on a particular day means that the only appropriate sanction in every case is dismissal. Each case must be decided on is own merits but, generally speaking, progressive discipline must be applied. This does not mean that it will never be fair for an employer to dismiss an employee for a single instance of being under the influence of alcohol. Whether or not dismissal is a fair sanction in a particular case is an issue that must be decided with due regard to the nature of the employee’s job, his length of service, his disciplinary record, the extent to which he was under the influence of alcohol and other relevant factors. Whether or not the sanction of dismissal is fair in a particular case is a value judgment that the CCMA commissioner or some other arbitrator must make on the basis of his or her own sense of fairness which, subject to other grounds of review set out in sec 145 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 (Act 66 of 1995) (“the Act”), the Labour Court and this Court cannot overturn if it is a decision that could be reached by a reasonable decision maker.”

[15]   In dealing with the facts of that case the Court found that on the evidence before the commissioner and in the light of his rejection of the evidence of employer’s witnesses of the extent to which the employee was under the influence of alcohol, the only conclusion open to the commissioner to reach was simply that the employee was under the influence of liquor but not to the extent that he could not perform his duties.

[16]   The approach that being under the influence of alcohol while on duty does not automatically justify dismissal was adopted in an earlier case by the Labour Appeal Court in the case of Tanker Services v Magudulela [1997] 12 BLR 1552 (LAC). The decision in that case is summarised in the footnote as follows:

“Employee guilty of being “under the influence of alcohol” when not able to perform tasks entrusted to him with the skill expected of a sober person- Whether an employee [is]unable to perform such task depends on its own on nature.”

[17]   In the present instance the evidence which was before the arbitrator was that the alcohol content in the employee’s blood was high and that he smelt alcohol. The evidence before the commissioner was that the supervisor of the employee called Mr Niemand and told him that the employee smelt alcohol as a result the employee was subjected to an alcohol test. It is also clear from the reading of the award that the commissioner accepted that the employee was not innocent and that is why in the exercise of his powers of determining a fair sanction he delayed as a form of punishment the reinstatement of the employee. The employee was dismissed on the 2nd March 2005, and effecting the punishment for his wrong doing the commissioner reinstated him effective from the 28 November 2005.

In a sense the commissioner’s conclusion was that the dismissal of the employee was in the circumstances of this case too harsh a sanction and accordingly, the dismissal was substantively unfair and this is not a decision that a reasonable decision-maker could not reach. Thus it should be recalled that Sidumo says that the issue of the fairness of the sanction should be left to the commissioner.

In these circumstances I do not find a basis for interfering with the decision of the commissioner and therefore the application to review the commissioner’s award and therefore the application to review the award stands to be dismissed.

I see no reason in both law and fairness why the costs should not follow the results

In the premises the application to review and set aside the arbitration award issued by the third respondent on the 14 November 2005 under case number MEEL200, is dismissed with costs.