Billionaire co-founder of mobile chain Phones 4U has said that a three-year High Court battle with a former business partner has taken him “to hell and back”, as judgment in the case was handed down today.
Private investment fund Signia Wealth, which is ultimately controlled by billionaire businessman John Caudwell, sued Nathalie Dauriac-Stoebe alleging that she fraudulently claimed around £33,000 in expenses on top of her £200,000 salary while working for the company, including claims for personal shopping trips, beauty treatments and family holidays.
In turn Dauriac sued Signia and Caudwell claiming £20m in compensation for wrongful dismissal and for shares she said she was owed.
The judge, Mr Justice Marcus Smith, found that Dauriac was a “bad leaver” under her terms of contract at Signia, which affected the value of shares that were compulsorily returned to Signia on her exit.
The judge awarded Dauriac around £500,000 in compensation for her shares and damages for breaches of Signia's articles by Caudwell, although the judge said that any breaches were “innocent ones”.
Smith J criticised Dauriac’s reliability as a witness, describing her as “a remarkably unsatisfactory witness”.
“In cross-examination, Dauriac gave long and generally not very responsive answers to questions that were put to her. She tended to the argumentative and – particularly when dealing with difficult points – was combative and aggressive in her answers. She was also prone to exaggeration,” he said.
“Even in the witness box, Dauriac tended to advance fresh explanations for the challenged expenses and seemed making up her explanations as she went along,” he said.
“Dauriac was unable to justify her position in a clear and compelling way. There is, quite simply, no explanation consistent with honesty,” Smith J added.
Dauriac said in a statement: "I am very pleased that the judge has today upheld my claim of constructive dismissal and found that the shares that were taken away from me and valued at just £2 were in fact worth more than £500,000."
She also blasted the judge for not protecting her from what she claims was abuse from senior management at the firm.
"During the course of the trial, there was also evidence showing that I and other female employees of John Caudwell were subject to written abuse by senior management. We were called many names, including "sociopath" and "nasty b****”.
"I am shocked that Mr Justice Smith should not consider this material to the case and I believe the judicial system needs to do more to ensure that women are protected from such abuse in the future. As a result, I have today written to the Chancellor of the High Court to ask him to look into judicial attitudes to professional women in business."
Caudwell said in a statement: “Over the course of the last three years I have been to hell and back as a consequence of a series of vindictive and completely baseless allegations made against me in the course of high profile legal proceedings with my former business partner Nathalie Dauriac.
"Throughout that period she waged what felt like a campaign of terror in an effort to extort £20m from me in the clear expectation that I would ultimately surrender and settle out of court. She was totally wrong in that assumption.
“I cannot agree with the Judge’s valuation of her shares in Signia Wealth, however, the sum she has been awarded for those shares represents a tiny fraction of the £20m she was seeking. This merely reinforces the ridiculous nature of her claim. Furthermore, that sum is vastly outweighed both by the legal costs she (or her funders) unwisely spent pursuing this matter and the costs that we expect the court to order her to pay to us as a result of the findings against her.”
Caudwell was represented by law firm Mischon de Reya and Monica Carss-Frisk QC of Blackstone Chambers and Edward Brown of Essex Court Chambers, while Dauriac turned to law firm Rosenblatt and Thomas Plewman QC, Sarah Ford QC and Joanne Box of Brick Court Chambers.