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An airport chef who claimed he was left barely able to walk after an accident at work had his £2.2m compensation claim thrown out after he was pictured on Facebook kayaking with his children.
Ferenc Sumegi strained his back lifting a fish tray at Heathrow and said the “unbearable” ongoing pain meant he had to use a stick or crutches to walk and often spent 18-hours-a-day lying down.
He sued his former employer, airport caterer Gate Gourmet UK Ltd, for £2.2m in compensation for his injuries and the loss of his career in the kitchen.
But his case was booted out and he was handed a £75,000 court costs bill after Facebook evidence emerged showing him kayaking, carrying his kids on his shoulders and throwing a stick for a dog.
At Oxford County Court last March, Judge Melissa Clarke found Mr Sumegi’s claim “fundamentally dishonest” – and the ruling was upheld by Mr Justice Yip at the High Court last week. The court heard Mr Sumegi, 49, who lives in Berkshire, hurt his back in October 2012 while working as a chef at Heathrow Airport, preparing meals for airline flights.
Lifting a tray of fish from a trolley, he strained his back and was left plagued by “unbearable” pain which blighted his work and day-to-day life, he said.
He said he couldn’t lift anything heavy or “do sudden movements,” couldn’t take his children to the park, run, kneel or squat down, and had to spend around 18 hours each day lying down. Although he managed to return to work after taking time off to recover, he said he had to quit his job with Gate Gourmet in June 2013 due to his disabilities.
Mr Sumegi claimed £2.2million compensation for his alleged “significant and continuing disability” and stated: “I was unable to work as a chef as I could not do any lifting and could make no sudden movements.
“If I have to stand for too long then the pain in my back would be unbearable. There is no way I could go back to work as a chef.”
He told a medic he resorted to holding onto furniture to get around at home, although he sometimes used his stick, and the doctor said Mr Sumegi walked around his surgery – when examined – with “a rather crab-like wide based gait”.
Lawyers for Gate Gourmet accepted that he suffered a genuine back injury, but insisted any symptoms caused by the accident would have cleared up within 14 months.
They argued his compensation claim was worth about £5,000 and that the £2.2 million lawsuit was grossly inflated and “fundamentally dishonest”.
A surveillance operation was mounted, covertly recording his movements, while investigations into social media led to his former bosses accusing him of “fundamental dishonesty” in his claim. Photos showed him “vigorously throwing a stick for his dog”, “kneeling in the sand burying his daughter at the beach”, and “a photo of Mr Sumegi in a river with a daughter on each shoulder and his arms in the air,” they said.
He was also snapped fishing and going kayaking and paddle boarding. Mr Sumegi insisted that evidence from Facebook was misleading as the photos had been posted by his partner, who “only puts positive photos on her page”.
He also had good days and bad days, he maintained. He said in evidence: “She doesn’t put pictures of me with a stick or which show my disabilities.”
Judge Clarke, dismissing Mr Sumegi’s case last year, said video surveillance evidence from September and November 2020 showed him walking without any aids, filling his car up with petrol and doing the supermarket run without a hitch.
She said: “He doesn’t show any discernible difficulty in doing anything that he has set out to do.” She accepted that some of the Facebook snaps might well have been “posed,” but added that some couldn’t be “explained away”.
She added: “One is of him whirling his elder daughter in a circle. This is not a movement which in my view would be undertaken by someone with the level of back pain and disability that he describes – even on a good day.” She found Mr Sumegi had “altered his gait” and exaggerated problems climbing stairs to boost his compensation claim, concluding:
“I am further satisfied that in respect of all these misrepresentations relating to his functional limitations, Mr Sumegi knew that these were misrepresentations because he was not functionally limited to the extent that he said he was.
“I do not believe that he genuinely believed that he was, but that he has done so to maximise the damages he has sought to be awarded in these proceedings. I am satisfied that these misrepresentations were dishonest judged by the objective standards of ordinary decent people.”
She said his genuine back injury would have been worth only £4,970 in damages, nothing like the seven-figure sum he claimed.
Mr Sumegi went on to challenge that decision in London’s High Court last week, seeking a retrial on the basis that the judge “simply got her decision wrong” and “that he has not been dishonest and is not a liar”.
But after a brief hearing, Mrs Justice Yip refused him permission to appeal, labelling the judgment against Mr Sumegi a “model of fairness”.
“The judge reached findings which were plainly open to her and seem inevitable on the evidence that was before the court,” she concluded. She said there was no “prospect of an appeal being successful”. Mr Sumegi was left to foot the massive lawyers’ bill for his “fundamentally dishonest” claim, with £75,000 to be paid up front.
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