Courts "weigh" in on controversial employee lawsuit involving injury and obesity

“An Indiana court has ruled that a pizza shop must pay for a 340-pound employee's weight-loss surgery to ensure the success of another operation for a back injury he suffered at work,” says the Huffington Post.

Under the Indiana court’s ruling (and an earlier decision by the state’s worker’s compensation board), Boston’s The Gourmet Pizza must pay for lap-band surgery for the plaintiff. The employee, who weighed 340 pounds at the time of the accident in March 2007, was accidentally struck in the back by a freezer door. He was told by doctors that he needed surgery to alleviate his severe pain, but for the surgery to be successful, he’d first need to lose weight (which rose to 380 pounds after the accident).

While his employers agreed to pay for the back surgery, they declined covering the recommended $25,000 weight-loss operation, pointing out that the employee was already obese before the accident. The courts saw it differently, however. They concluded that the surgery should be covered, since the employee’s weight and the accident had combined to create a single injury.

"There's actually a string of cases across the country that have reached similar conclusions," says the employee’s attorney, Rick Gikas. He cites cases in Ohio, California, Oregon, Florida and South Dakota, including some dating back to 1983.

As you might imagine, cases like these are especially concerning for employers – on both a legal and an emotional level. One, because of the cost implications with workers’ compensation claims and court cases. And two, because it’s easy to conclude that obesity is the employee’s “fault” and that it’s not fair for an employer to foot the bill for expensive weight-loss procedures.

But are these concerns significant enough to influence how you treat overweight individuals in the workplace – not hiring an obese candidate, for example?

"Legally, you cannot refuse to hire this 350-pound person because they're 350
pounds. That's illegal. But you might find some other reason not to hire them,"
says Tom Lynch, CEO of Lynch, Ryan & Associates, a consulting firm that
helps businesses manage workers’ compensation.

With one-third of Americans now considered obese (a body mass index of 30 or more), weight (and weight bias) in the workplace are issues that can’t be ignored. After all, what an employer might overlook or dismiss with obesity-related issues, the courts will not.

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