At some point, everyone needs a vacation. For British couple Leon Roberts and Jade Muzoka, though, their trip to Turkey in July 2015 ended in tears. In fact, they subsequently claimed more than $80,000 in compensation for food poisoning. However, the case took a dramatic turn when investigators saw the couple’s vacation pictures on Facebook.
Roberts is a 37-year-old railway industry contractor, and 27-year-old Muzoka is a fitness trainer. The couple reside in Derby, England, and share a passion for fitness. They also have a child together. So in July 2015, they decided to go on a week-long vacation to Turkey, staying at the Cornelia Golf Resort and Spa.
However, in April 2016 Roberts and Muzoka filed a claim against the travel firm TUI. In it, they alleged that they had both come down with food poisoning while on that vacation. Through their lawyer, the couple pursued a payment of about £58,000 ($80,000) in compensation. TUI therefore launched an investigation into their claims.
And despite the doctor’s report in the couple’s claim, TUI investigators found damning evidence against them on social media. Namely, images of Roberts and Muzoka on Facebook that showed the pair seeming to enjoy their Turkish vacation. Unsurprisingly, the images contradicted their claim of being bedridden during that time.
Several of the pictures showed Roberts and Muzoka relaxing by a swimming pool as well as enjoying meals and drinks over the course of their week. Consequently, the pair withdrew their claim for compensation before any money had been paid to them. However, they were left with a much bigger problem.
Indeed, TUI decided to prosecute them for fraud. Although Muzoka maintained that they both had come down sick on the vacation, the pair pleaded guilty to fraud at a hearing in January 2018. Muzoka said a man who’d inquired whether the pair had been ill had set things in motion.
“We were encouraged to lie and exaggerate the extent of our illness,” Roberts told the court. “We were ill for a couple of days. But he put everything down on the papers and photocopied all the documents. We admit we exaggerated how ill we were, but he was getting some sort of commission for dealing with our claims.”
The pair’s sentencing hearing came in March 2018. “The facts are that the couple enjoyed a holiday at the resort in July 2015,” prosecutor Tim Hunter told Southern Derbyshire Magistrates’ Court. “The holiday went ahead without incident with no complaints about any undue medical conditions.”
“Their social media entries made it plain they’d had a good time,” Hunter continued. “But in April of the following year they claimed for damages against TUI claiming they both suffered illness because of the food they consumed. That was false, and they did it deliberately trying to make a benefit for themselves.”
However, Roberts and Muzoka’s actions at the earlier hearing came into play when it came to their sentencing. “Had the claim continued and payment [been] made I would have no alternative other than an immediate custodial sentence,” District Judge Jonathan Taaffe told Southern Derbyshire Magistrates’ Court. Despite his words, though, the couple still faced punishment for what they had done.
Judge Taaffe gave Roberts and Muzoka both suspended jail sentences for 12 months. On top of that, Judge Taaffe ordered them to do 200 hours’ worth of community service. He also charged them £1,115 each for court costs and a victim surcharge.
“This was in my view a false claim from the outset,” Judge Taaffe told Roberts and Muzoka when passing the sentence. “Whether encouraged by solicitors or not, it is clear that both of you embarked on a false claim and were no doubt of the view that holiday companies are a soft touch. It is in my view akin to perverting the course of justice.”
“This is not a victimless crime – the costs of this type of false claim are massive,” the judge added. Both TUI and the Association of British Travel Agents, better known as ABTA, welcomed the judgement. Indeed, the latter is currently campaigning against false sickness claims.
“Today’s sentencing sends out the clearest possible message that the courts take a very dim view of anyone submitting a fraudulent holiday sickness claim,” Mark Tanzer, the chief executive of ABTA, told The Guardian. “There has been a huge rise in these types of fraudulent claims, which are costing hotels and travel companies tens of millions of pounds.”
Still, Roberts and Muzoka are just the second couple to be convicted of this crime. Paul Roberts and Deborah Briton were the first, as they were jailed in October 2017 after pursuing £20,000 ($28,000) in compensation. The pair claimed that both themselves and their two children had become ill on vacations to Mallorca in 2015 and 2016. But again, posts on social media from that time contradicted them.
After that case, the British government promised to pay closer attention to fraudulent travel sickness claims. With Roberts and Muzoka’s sentence still fresh in his mind, ABTA CEO Tanzer said he hopes that it comes through on its pledge.
“The government must make good its promise to bring overseas personal injury and sickness claims into the fixed legal cost regime – which will cap the exorbitant fees many solicitors are charging on the back of false sickness claims – in time for this year’s holiday season,” Tanzer told The Guardian in March 2018.
As for TUI, it released a statement after the sentencing warning of the ramifications such false claims can bring. “Leon Roberts and Jade Muzoka now have a criminal record which will have a significant impact on their future,” it read. “And it may not be the end of the story for them yet as the hotel where they stayed may well be considering bringing further action in Turkey.”
“We will bring all similar cases to a court hearing,” the statement concluded. So despite the fact that Roberts and Muzoka are no longer a couple, this sentence will stick with them both for the rest of their lives.