Businesses beware – as gym chain Virgin Active found out – discrimination is not limited to employees. You may be liable for the actions of your service providers towards your clients!
The media has recently reported on a case in which an autistic man, Ketan Aggarwal, brought a successful disability discrimination claim against Virgin Active after he was insulted by one of their gym instructors.
In 2015 Mr Aggarwal was attending a spin class at the gym when one of his fellow cyclists complained that the music was not motivating enough. Mr Aggarwal agreed with her, and as a result, the instructor is said to have yelled: ‘Don’t tell me how to do my job’. Then at the end of the class it was alleged the instructor shouted over a microphone that Mr Aggarwal was ‘stupid’ and rudely dismissed his opinion in front of a class of 30.
Mr Aggarwal claimed that he had previously made gym staff aware of his autism, so made a complaint to Virgin Active about the way that he had been singled out by the instructor. When Virgin Active failed to take any action, Mr Aggarwal brought a claim against the company.
Mr Aggarwal was successful and Virgin Active was ordered to pay him £1,200 in damages, plus £190 in costs. It was also ordered to apologise to Mr Aggarwal and to consider amending its equality training to staff and consultants.
Gym instructors are often engaged as independent contractors rather than as employees. However, under the Equality Act 2010 businesses can be liable for the acts of agents such as independent contractors, so it’s important to ensure that your equality policies apply to all employees, officers, consultants, contractors, volunteers and agency workers.
You should also consider running training sessions for all such staff to make them aware of their legal duties under the Equality Act 2010. These steps are aimed at ensuring that discriminatory acts do not occur in the first place, but will also help show that the business has taken such steps as are practicable to prevent discrimination, should a claim be made against it.
The courts have the power to award compensation in discrimination cases for injury to feelings, so the claimant doesn’t have to show that he has suffered any financial loss. There may also be a costs order, as was the case here. The £190 costs order made in this case was low because Mr Aggarwal represented himself, after going to the library to learn about discrimination law. However, those with legal representation can incur costs running into thousands of pounds.
Also, as shown by this matter, a claim brought against you by one of
your clients could result in negative publicity and damage client relationships.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced some specific advice and guidance for gyms and health clubs, which you can access here.