N7 construction workers "treated appallingly" cannot have €1.2m damages enforced

ireland
In late 2018, the High Court’s Ms Justice Carmel Stewart gave a judgment with the effect that 57 workers on the N7 motorway construction were entitled to some €1.2 million in damages.
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Michael McAleer

More than 50 Portugese workers have failed to get an order for enforcement across the EU of damages judgments totalling €1.2m over their “appalling” treatment by their former employers when working on the N7 motorway over 10 years ago.

After that Court of Appeal ruling on Monday, Tom O'Regan, solicitor for the workers, said he would move an application before the Portugese courts in an effort to enforce the judgments.

The Appeal Court’s Ms Justice Caroline Costello said, while having “every sympathy for the plight of the workers” and “deprecating entirely” the defendants conduct in the litigation, the workers were not entitled to a European Enforcement Order (EEO).

Contested claim

The relevant European regulation concerning EEOs introduced a simplified mechanism to enforce uncontested claims throughout the EU but this claim was not uncontested, she said.

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The fact the defendants had not equipped their lawyers with instructions or witnesses to enable their lawyers fight their case in the way such litigation is normally conducted in our legal system did not amount to a “tacit admission” of the claim, she said.

The claims for damages for breach of employment contracts also did not fall within the definition of a claim for the purpose of the regulation, she also held. The claims involved the court assessing general damages and were not for “a specific sum of money as fell due” as provided for under the regulation.

She dismissed a cross-appeal by the defendants against the High Court’s decision to make no order for costs of the EEO application, meaning each side pays their own costs.

Order for costs

In its costs order, the High Court was entitled to have regard to the "wider equitable picture" and clearly had regard to the “deplorable” history, both of the defendants conduct as employers and their conduct of the litigation.

The defendants are entitled to their costs of the workers’ appeal over the refusal of the EEO, she said.

The Court of Appeal judgment concerned appeals and cross-appeals over orders made arising from a High Court judgment of 2018 in the latest stage of what Ms Justice Costello described as a “long, torturous saga” dating back to 2007 and 2008.

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The workers claimed they were underpaid while working for a partnership comprising three Portuguese companies contracted to construct the section of motorway between Limerick and Nenagh.

Underpaid

The High Court in 2016 awarded damages to a number of workers under various headings.

After the employers won an appeal concerning how damages for accommodation deficiencies were calculated, various matters were remitted to the High Court for assessment.

In late 2018, the High Court’s Ms Justice Carmel Stewart gave a judgment with the effect that 57 workers were entitled to some €1.2 million in damages.

The judgment was against Portuguese based Rosas Construtores SA, Constructocoes Gabriel AS Couto SA, and Empresa Deconstrucoes Amandio Carvalho SA, all trading under the title RAC Contractors or RAC Eire Partnership.

Ms Justice Stewart found the workers who gave evidence were "decent hardworking individuals" who were "treated appallingly" by their employers.

Previous breaches

The employers were previously found in breach of numerous employment regulations including the Organisation of Working Time Act, with the workers working far in excess of what the defendant's worksheets had indicated.

Ms Justice Stewart noted evidence the Portuguese workers lived in a cramped prefab building in a rural townland outside Nenagh with between six to eight people per room. The accommodation facility was a fire hazard with no drinkable water, the showers didn't work all the time and there was a smell from where wastewater from the facility flowed, she said.

She accepted the defendants made "extortionate deductions” from the workers wages supposedly for items, including for food insufficient to properly feed them, and accommodation that was “not fit for purpose”.

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