An employment tribunal in Northern Ireland has become the first to consider obesity a disability following a ruling in the European Court of Justice in 2014.
The Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal in the case of Bickerstaff v Butcher unanimously decided that the claimant is disabled and upheld the claim of harassment.
The claimant, Mr Bickerstaff, claimed that he was harassed by colleagues at Randox Laboratories in Co Antrim, in particular Mr Butcher, because of his weight.
In two instances Mr Butcher said to the claimant that he was “so fat he could hardly walk” and that Mr Bickerstaff was “so fat he would hardly feel a knife being stuck into him”.
The employment judge said it was satisfied that Mr Bickerstaff had been “harassed for a reason which related to his disability, namely his morbid obesity condition”. The tribunal heard evidence of the claimant’s excessive body mass index (48.5), sleep apnoea and gout.
In its ruling the tribunal panel referred to a ruling in December 2014 from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the case of Karsten Kaltoft, a Danish childminder who claimed he was sacked for being too fat. The ECJ said that if obesity hinders “full and effective participation” at work, it could as a disability.
The principal employment law editor at XpertHR, Stephen Simpson, said: “A common challenge that an obese worker is likely to face in the workplace is inappropriate comments from colleagues. Employers and employees need to be aware that, since the ECJ confirmed that obesity can be a disability, such comments may constitute disability harassment.
“This judgment is also notable for the medical report’s suggestion that the claimant’s health would have been improved if he had lost weight over a period of time. It appeared to make no difference to the tribunal that the claimant’s condition was self-inflicted and could have been improved: the important thing for the tribunal was the impact of the condition on the worker, not its cause.”
A Randox Laboratories spokesperson added: “This tribunal was the result of a dispute between two former staff members. As soon as the relevant departments were made aware of the issue, it was dealt with.
“This included a rigorous internal investigation, concluding in the immediate dismissal of the antagonist. Randox made every effort to secure the return to work of the claimant and to support him.
“We are aware of the new strand of discrimination that this case law has introduced and Randox continues to be an employer committed to ensuring zero tolerance on any form of discrimination.”