The European Court of Justice ruled Thursday that obesity can be considered a disability, but stopped short of saying that obesity was a condition that needed specific protection under anti-discrimination laws.
The court said no EU law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of obesity, nor should the law be extended to make it a protected category.
But if obesity hinders someone’s performance at work, it could count as a disability. Discrimination on the grounds of disability is illegal under European Union law.
The landmark decision will be closely read by European employers and means that companies might have to provide greater support to obese staff.
Classifying obesity as a protected characteristic - such as sex, race or age - would have required employers to take measures to ensure obese workers could perform their duties on an equal footing with others.
"It would have opened a can of worms," Crowley Woodford, employment partner at law firm Ashurst, told Reuters.
However, the nuanced ruling still leaves companies open to potential discrimination suits.
A Danish court had sought a ruling in the case of a child care worker who said he was unfairly fired because he is obese. The Danish court had specifically asked whether EU law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of obesity or whether obesity can be considered a disability.
The EU court said it is up to the Danish court to determine whether the “child minder” Karsten Kaltoft’s obesity “falls within the definition of disability.”
Kaltoft, who weighs 159 kilograms (350 pounds), said he was fired because of his weight, a claim his employers denied.
According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), based on 2008 estimates, roughly 23 percent of European women and 20 percent of European men were obese.
The issue of whether obesity is a disability has also been dealt with in U.S. courts, where almost one in three adults is obese, according to WHO data. Some states, such as Michigan, have enacted legislation that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's weight.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.