Chef's £2.2m injury claim rejected after photos showed him kayaking
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 thrown out and he was handed a £75,000 court costs bill after Facebook evidence emerged showing him kayaking, carrying his children on his shoulders, and throwing a stick for a dog.
At Oxford County Court last March, judge Melissa Clarke found Sumegi's claim "fundamentally dishonest" - and the ruling was upheld by Mr Justice Yip at the High Court last week.
The court heard 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 that blighted his work and day-to-day life, he said.
He said he couldn't lift anything heavy or "do sudden movements," was unable to take his children to the park and couldn't run, kneel or squat 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.
Sumegi claimed £2.2m compensation for his alleged "significant and continuing disability" and said: "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 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 £2.2m 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 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.
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.
"She doesn't put pictures of me with a stick or which show my disabilities," he said in evidence.
Judge Clarke, dismissing 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 any problems.
"He doesn't show any discernible difficulty in doing anything that he has set out to do," she said.
She accepted that some of the Facebook photographs might well have been "posed," but added that some couldn't be "explained away".
"One is of him whirling his elder daughter in a circle," she said. "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 Sumegi had "altered his gait" and exaggerated problems climbing stairs to boost his compensation claim.
She said his genuine back injury would have been worth only £4,970 in damages, rather than the seven-figure sum he claimed.
Sumegi challenged the 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 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".
Sumegi was left to foot the massive lawyers' bill for his "fundamentally dishonest" claim, with £75,000 to be paid up front.
Copy by Nev Ayling
Image: al clark / Shutterstock