Lotun -v- London United Buses

Paula Garvey and Caroline Dunn, together with their client London United Buses, recently took a claim for indirect  discrimination against a bus operator to trial. Here, they explain the issues they faced and how these were overcome.

The background

The claimant was a 57 year old disabled man, who sought to travel on a bus with his wife and 10 month old twin daughters. The claimant was in a wheelchair and his daughters were in a tandem buggy.

When the bus arrived, the claimant went to the centre doors of the bus which are reserved for wheelchair users. His wife went to the front of the bus with his daughters in the buggy. The driver opened the doors at the centre and lowered the ramp for the claimant to get on the bus. The claimant boarded and settled himself in the space designated for wheelchair users. The claimant’s wife subsequently tried to board but was refused on the basis that there would not be space for the buggy in the designated area with a wheelchair on the bus. The claimant’s wife disembarked, and the bus started to pull away. The claimant demanded that the bus stop and he also disembarked.

The claim

The claimant pursued a claim for indirect discrimination and failure to make reasonable adjustments.

Three issues arose:

  1. Did the defendant subject the claimant to unfavourable treatment by not providing the claimant with the relevant service, or in providing the relevant service to the claimant by subjecting him to any other detriment?
  2. If so, did the defendant subject the claimant to such unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of his disability?
  3. If so, was such treatment a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim?

The claimant alleged that:

  • both he and his wife told the bus driver that they were travelling as a family, but they were ignored; and
  • there would have been space for both his wheelchair and the buggy. This was demonstrated in court and involved the claimant splaying his legs and folding up the footholds of the wheelchair, with the front seat of the buggy pushed under the wheelchair.

The defendant denied the claim and relied on the evidence of the bus driver and the defendant’s Accident Prevention Manager. The defendant said that:

  • neither the claimant nor his wife had advised the driver that they were travelling as a family, but this was in any event irrelevant, as it would have been unsafe to try and fit both the buggy and the wheelchair in the space in the manner described;
  • it would not have been safe to wedge the buggy under the wheelchair as any sudden braking would have caused the child in the second seat of the buggy to be thrown into the claimant; and
  • in the event of an evacuation, the driver would have been obliged to evacuate the claimant first as a disabled person. This would have involved him disentangling the buggy before evacuating the wheelchair and this delay could cause greater risk to other passengers.

The decision

The court found that all witnesses had provided their evidence honestly, but preferred the bus driver’s statement that he was not aware that the claimant was travelling with his family. Had he known, he would not have begun to drive off. The court also found that the manner of arranging the buggy and wheelchair proposed by the claimant would have been manifestly unsafe.

The claimant had not been treated unfavourably. The treatment was not because of something arising in consequence of his disability – it was simply due to the fact that the buggy could not fit safely on the bus with the wheelchair already on board. In any event, the treatment was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, being the general safety of all passengers on the bus.

The claim was dismissed. The court found that if the claimant had been successful, taking into account that the next bus service the claimant’s wife could have used would have arrived within six minutes, the court would have awarded damages of £750. As it was, the claimant was ordered to pay the defendants costs of £20,225.90.

The lesson

The court’s decision was a sensible one. While every care should be taken to accommodate disabled people, the safety of all passengers is paramount and should not be overlooked for fear of causing offence. The court was satisfied that cases such as these should be decided on merit and the bus driver had every right to rely on his experience and discretion in making the decision to prevent travel if there was a risk to the safety of any passengers.

Bus operators should take heart from this decision but should be careful to ensure that they have clear and fair policies in place, and that their drivers are aware of the law in respect of disability and discrimination, and health and safety. Consideration should also be given to official guidelines such as the ‘Big Red Book’.