We all know that morbidly obese people are at risk for a wide variety of health problems. But do they pose inherent dangers to others? In a recent case decided in Oregon, a 550 pound trucker was suspended and eventually fired because his employer believed he posed a risk to others on the road: due to his girth, he might have trouble turning the steering wheel, which was pressed by his stomach. A jury begged to differ.
Driving Versus Lifting
This was not a simple case. The issue first arose when the driver, John McDuffy, was given a smaller-than-usual vehicle. The steering wheel adjustment mechanism was broken, so he could not fit in the cab. When he reported the problem, he was suspended.
"I could see them suspending me if I did something wrong, or if I couldn't do my job," he said. "But I'd been there 14 months. I'd always done my job..."
Before allowing McDuffy to return to work, they subjected him to a physical capacities exam, where they videotaped him climbing in and out of the truck. (I would be interested to know whether such an exam was in itself an act of discrimination, as McDuffy was singled out to take it due to his size.) The video tape became an important piece of evidence in the trial.
The treating doctor stated that driving was not a problem for McDuffy, but he was not released to handle freight. What is not clear from this article -- and what may be the most important point of all - is whether handling freight was an essential part of the job. If freight handling was essential, then McDuffy was not able to perform the work and could have been safely terminated (after options for accommodating him had been thoroughly explored). However, the employer did not focus on the issue of handling freight, but on a more general concern for public safety relating to the operation of the vehicle.
McDuffy's defense quoted an internal memo from the company's risk manager, aptly named Tammy Warn, who observed about another obese driver at the company: the man's excessive girth was a problem because "his protruding belly gets in the way of the steering wheel."
Within a week of this memo's writing, McDuffy was suspended.
McDuffy returned to work in some capacity (the article is not clear about the circumstances). While working, he bent to pick up something off the trailer floor and pulled a muscle in his back. He went out on workers comp for several months. During his prolonged disability, he was fired. So he sued. In November of this year, a jury found that the employer had discriminated against McDuffy and awarded him $109,000.
McDuffy's employer made at least three fundamental mistakes. First, the employer failed to focus on the essential requirements of the job, which appeared to include elements of handling freight which McDuffy could not perform. Second, the employer was unable to demonstrate that McDuffy's obesity directly impaired his ability to drive. Finally, the employer resorted to a blanket defense that tried to cast all obese drivers in a common light.
LynchRyan reminds employers to focus relentlessly on the essential elements of the job. Every disability law empowers employers to define the nature of the job and how it is to be done (while requiring accommodations in certain circumstances). Had McDuffy's employer done this, they could probably have avoided the court case.
We learn from a trucking website that obesity is not uncommon in the trucking industry. In a 2004 survey, researchers found that the average OOIDA member was 5�10� tall and weighed 216 pounds � a 31 percent body mass index (BMI) number, or 1 percent over what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers obese. In an earlier 2001 survey, the OOIDA Foundation found that roughly 87 percent of truckers polled were either overweight or obese.
While it's true that obesity may place these drivers at greater risk for injury, there is no evidence that there are increased risks to the general public. Driving, by definition, involves a lot of sitting - the kind of inactivity that leads directly to weight gain. Savvy transportation companies might do well to encourage their drivers to participate in wellness programs. There's no discimination in that -- and in the long run there would likely be significant reductions in costs, along with an increase in productivity.