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UK tribunal decides that a ‘morbidly obese’ employee is disabled

Back in December, we blogged about the European Court of Justice’s decision that a worker’s obesity does not automatically make them disabled, but that they may be disabled on account of some impairments caused by obesity.  In what has been billed as the first UK application of this, the Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal has decided that an employee’s ‘morbid obesity’ rendered him disabled.

Neil Bickerstaff complained that a colleague, Gerard Butcher, harassed him about his obesity on an almost daily basis. Mr Bickerstaff contended that his ‘morbid obesity’ was a disability.  Having heard medical evidence that, as a result of his weight, Mr Bickerstaff suffered from a sleep disorder (which caused tiredness and loss of concentration) and impaired mobility, the tribunal accepted that his obesity was a disability.  It went on to find that he had been harassed by his colleague for a reason related to his disability i.e. his morbid obesity.

As discussed in our previous blog, it is not the case that all obese workers will be disabled but some may be.  As this case illustrates, if an obese worker is disabled, they will be protected against disability harassment which may include inappropriate comments from colleagues about their weight.  If a victim’s claim against a colleague (as an individual) is upheld, the colleague may be liable to pay compensation to the victim: explaining this to staff as part of diversity training may act as a powerful deterrent against bullying and harassment.  An obese worker will also be protected against other forms of disability discrimination and in some circumstances you may have a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Liam Lane

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