A controversial aristocrat who had to pay damages to two female employees he forced out because they were pregnant has settled a claim made by a third woman for alleged sex discrimination
Sir Benjamin Slade made an out-of-court settlement with a former employee this week who accused him of sex discrimination, a breach of contract and owing her unpaid holiday pay and wages.
The eccentric 74-year-old was being sued by Jessica Cooper-Hogan, 19, who worked for him as an event coordinator at his Woodlands Castle conference centre in Somerset from August 2018 until April 2020.
She took legal action against Sir Benjamin and 10 of his other firms based around the country, including Woodlands Ltd, contractors and holding companies – some of which have since been dissolved.
The case had come for a preliminary hearing at Bristol Employment Tribunal but the claims were dismissed after the parties reached an out-of-court settlement.
Ian Morrell, representing Miss Cooper-Hogan, told the virtual hearing: “I was led to believe we are close to achieving an out of tribunal settlement in any event.
“I believe the tribunal would be greatly served if that opportunity could be pursued to its fullest.”
After a two-hour adjournment, the judge said the parties had reached a settlement and the hearing would not continue.
Employment Judge Michael Salter said: “I received notification that the parties are likely to have settled, then 10 minutes later I received an email stating this was the case.
“So I will publish a judgment stating the claims are dismissed upon withdrawal.”
At the end of the case, Mr Morrell added: “The claimant [Miss Cooper-Hogan] has suffered a very torrid time in which her life has gone downhill.
“She lost her home and employment and that’s the reason for her not being here today as she started a new job.”
At a previous hearing in April her unfair dismissal and redundancy payment claims were struck out by a different judge because she had not worked at Woodlands Castle for two years, but her other claims were not affected and were allowed to proceed.
In a previous employment tribunal, Sir Benjamin was ordered to pay more than £150,000 compensation to events planners Melissa Biggs and Roxanne Stewart who worked for him at his upmarket weddings and functions venue in the Somerset countryside.
The two women who had fallen pregnant successfully argued in the 2019 hearing that he acted in a “high-handed and oppressive manner” after discovering two of his employees were expecting babies within months of each other.
Sir Benjamin, who has had run-ins with his local council in the past, claimed during the previous tribunal that Mrs Biggs and Miss Stewart “timed” their pregnancies to “spite him” and refused to pay their statutory dues.
In the case of Miss Stewart, her boss subjected her to an “entirely spurious and vindictive ‘disciplinary’ process designed to drive her from the business”, Judge Colm O’Rourke said.
Both women, who were 28 at the time, worked at Woodlands Castle, a 17th century country house near Taunton, Somerset, which Sir Benjamin owns and hires out for functions.
Mrs Biggs went on maternity leave in September 2017 and Miss Stewart, who joined Woodlands straight from school at 17, followed in December.
Both had premature births and Miss Stewart said this was due to the stress Sir Benjamin put her under as her child had to go into intensive care. Both babies made full recoveries, the tribunal was told.
Sir Benjamin, who made his fortune from shipping, falsely claimed both women gave birth prematurely because “they had smoked and drank” during their pregnancies.
Baby ‘dropping out’
He threatened to report them to the police for theft without any evidence and made an offensive comment about Miss Stewart’s baby “dropping out”, Bristol Employment Tribunal heard.
The tribunal awarded aggravated damages of more than £150,000 for injury to the women’s feelings because of the stress he put them under.
He was ordered to pay a total of £87,696.42 to Miss Stewart, a mother-of-two from Bridgwater, and £62,890.65 to Mrs Biggs who lives in Taunton.
Sir Benjamin, who is a descendant of Charles II and George IV, lives in a cottage at his family home a few miles from Woodlands Castle, called Maunsel House in North Newton near Bridgwater, Somerset.
During the height of the first pandemic peak last March, he offered up his stately home as a space for an emergency coronavirus hospital.
The estate is where Chaucer wrote part of The Canterbury Tales and was built in the late 14th or early 15th century.
In 2019 Sir Benjamin sent 50 oak trees to help rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral because he felt guilty about his family’s history of ”killing French people”.
Previously in 2012 Sir Benjamin was fined £2,000 after being convicted of firearms offences and breaching a shotgun certificate by leaving an unsecured weapon in an upstairs bedroom at 2,000-acre Maunsel House.
Police scrambled a helicopter and flew overhead during a wedding at the venue, after he took a pot-shot at a fox.