What has Formula 1 got to do with employment law? Usually the answer would be not much, but last weekend's dramatic conclusion to the season through up an interesting scenario. Drives Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg competed in the last round of the Formula 1 Championship to determine who would win the Drivers' World Championship.
For those of you who follow Formula 1, this race, held in Abu Dhabi, marked the culmination of a tumultuous season of competition.
At the start of the race, both Hamilton and Rosberg, driving for the Mercedes team, were capable of winning the world championship. However, due to the points recorded over the course of the season if Hamilton won the race while Rosberg finished lower than third, then Hamilton would have been crowned champion.
In the latter stages of the Grand Prix, everything was going to plan for Mercedes. Hamilton held a comfortable lead with Rosberg second. In such circumstances, Nico Rosberg would lift the World Championship.
However, Hamilton slowed down in an attempt to back Rosberg into rival cars and possible force him to drop down the race positions. He chose to do this in the knowledge that if he won the race and his team mate finished fourth, then he (Hamilton) would be crowned Champion.
Much to Mercedes' annoyance, they realised what Hamilton was trying to do and ordered him to speed up. Specific instructions were given to Hamilton yet he chose to ignore these. Ultimately, despite Hamilton's best efforts to the contrary, Rosberg finished second and lifted the drivers' crown.
Obligation to follow your employer's instructions
Set across the backdrop of the high octane world of Formula 1, there may be some questions as to whether there are any employment law implications for Lewis Hamilton failing to follow team orders.
When it comes to instructions, an employee is under a general obligation to follow lawful instructions given by his employer. The scope of the employers' powers and employees' obligations will usually be set out in a contract. However, there may also be unwritten duties arising from custom and practice. Team orders are not banned in F1 and therefore it is likely that there will be a clause in Lewis Hamilton's contract stating that he must follow an order to let a team mate past him if instructed to do so. Nico Rosberg received such an instruction in Monaco and let Lewis Hamilton through.
Clear instructions were being issued to Lewis Hamilton on three occasions during the race in Abu Dhabi. He chose not to follow these. As a result, there have been many rumours circulating that he will face disciplinary action.
It is trite law to say that fair dismissal may follow from the refusal of an employee to comply with an instruction to carry out normal duties. It may also follow from a refusal to follow instruction to carry out new duties. In certain circumstances, a dismissal may be fair even where the instruction in question was outside the scope of the employees' contractual obligations: for example, where the employer believed that it was entitled to give the instruction even as a matter of fact that it was not.
In some circumstances, an employee will be justified in refusing to obey an instruction even where it appears to be within the scope of the employers' powers. Examples include an instruction to do something amounting to a criminal offence or to do something which would put the employee or others in imminent danger.
Could Lewis Hamilton face action from his employer?
From an employer lawyer's perspective, it seems clear that the instructions were reasonable and that these were ignored by Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton will say that there was a championship to be won and that he was entitled to, in the circumstances, ignore those orders. However, that does not compensate for the fact that his actions effectively undermined management. Whether Hamilton is dismissed is a matter for the management team at Mercedes.
It is highly likely that Lewis Hamilton will face some sort of punishment for his actions. If Mercedes fail to do so, they may find it more difficult to impose sanctions in the future if similar behaviour takes place.
Only time will tell as to whether a sanction will be put in place by Mercedes. In any event, Lewis Hamilton will always prove to be a divisive figure in Formula 1 and he will be determined to do all he can to win back the championship in 2017.
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If you would like to discuss an employer's duty to make reasonable adjustments, please contact one of our employment team to discuss.