LONDON — Obesity can be a disability, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday — a decision that could have widespread consequences across the 28-nation bloc for the way in which employers deal with severely overweight staff.
The ruling, which is binding across the EU, has such profound implications for employment law that experts expect EU nations to challenge it.
The court ruled in the case of a Danish childcare worker Karsten Kaltoft, who weighed 159 kilograms (350 pounds) and said he was unfairly fired for being fat. The ruling said if obesity hinders a "full and effective participation in professional life," it could count as a disability.
According to Jacob Sand, Kaltoft's lawyer, the ruling means employers will have an "active obligation" to cater to the needs of their obese staff members who are considered disabled, because discrimination on the grounds of disability is illegal under European Union law.
This could mean providing car parking spaces closer to the office, changes to workers' desks and other modifications.
In some EU states, the decision may also make it more difficult for employers to fire or lay off workers who are grossly overweight.
"It is a good ruling in my case and I am happy about it," said Kaltoft, who is now fighting for compensation worth 15 months of his salary.
Kaltoft worked in child care for 15 years for the Municipality of Billund in Denmark before being dismissed in 2010. The municipality says Kaltoft's position became unnecessary due to a decline in the number of children served.
The European Court of Justice said it was now for Danish courts to decide whether Kaltoft's obesity constituted a disability.
Tam Fry, a spokesman for the UK's National Obesity Forum, said he was worried the ruling could "cause friction in the workplace between obese people and other workers."
Fry said he expected EU member nations to challenge it.