Court overturns termination of 14 ambulance workers who refused vaccination

A Tallinn Emergency Response ambulance.
A Tallinn Emergency Response ambulance. Source: Jenny Va / ERR

The Harju County Court ruled on Friday that Tallinn Emergency Response (Tallinna Kiirabi) did not have the right to terminate the employment of 14 employees who refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and ordered it to pay the employees compensation, the law firm representing the plaintiffs said.

"The court's reasoning as concerns termination of employment contracts is logical and clear. It is key that the court overturned the Labor Inspectorate's grounds for termination: employees cannot be fired for failure to vaccinate based on section 88, subsection 1, clause 2 of the Employment Contracts Act," said attorney Jaanika Reilik-Bakhoff from Pallo&Partnerid.

The law firm finds that the court clearly designated that employers have no legal grounds for requiring vaccination.

The firm reported the court's main findings in the case as follows. The employer has no legal grounds to require vaccination, risk analysis was exaggerated, an employment contract cannot be unilaterally changed and the situation did not qualify as a work order.

Employer has no legal right to require vaccination

- The defending party had no legal grounds for requiring its employees to be vaccinated – no such provision has ever been in effect, is in effect currently, nor are there any plans to introduce it in the near future, as far as the court is aware.

- No executive order gave the defending party grounds to require vaccination.

- Employment contracts with the plaintiffs also did not provide the defending party with grounds to introduce a vaccination obligation.

Risk analysis exaggerated

- The court has reason to believe the consequences did not correspond to levels IV (major injury, severe damage to health, partial permanent disability, occupational disease) or V (very serious consequences, permanent disability, death).

- The defender's risk analysis prescribed several alternative ways of managing risks. An obligation to vaccinate as a primary measure cannot be considered proportional in such a situation.

- The defendant erroneously considered the obligation to vaccinate as the only conceivable measure with which to avoid illness and infection. It is common knowledge that vaccination cannot rule out COVID-19 infection and illness. Claims that vaccines can rule out the spread of the disease among employees or patients who come into contact with them are similarly baseless. The only purpose of vaccination could, therefore, be the protection of the employee's own health.

- The risk analysis laid down the obligation to vaccinate, even though the legal course of action would have been to offer vaccination to those who wanted it. The defendant was only in their right to enable vaccination, not demand it.

- Because vaccination only serves the purpose of protecting the employee's own health, the right to protection of health (section 28 of the Constitution), the right to life (section 16 of the Constitution) and inviolability of private life (section 26 of the Constitution) need to be ensured. These rights need to be ensured in a way that allows the individual to perform an employment contract (section 16 of the Constitution). Therefore, persons in an employment relationship must retain the right to make decisions pertaining to their health, including whether to protect themselves in ways offered and encouraged by the employer.

- It is furthermore noteworthy that the defendant has not laid down a similar obligation for other viruses or diseases, nor has it terminated another employee for failure to comply with a vaccination obligation. This in a situation where the nature of work means employees regularly come into contact with various diseases.

- The court, therefore, finds that the defendant has proceeded from false presumptions in its risk assessment and was not right to lay down a vaccination obligation as the only primary measure for field workers.

Employment contracts cannot be unilaterally changed

- The defender has said that it has no criticism for how the plaintiffs have discharged their duties. The defender has terminated the employment contracts solely because the plaintiffs did not comply with the vaccination obligation immediately and in due time.

- The vaccination obligation constituted unilateral action by the defender. The fact the plaintiffs were notified of the change does nothing to render it multilateral. The introduction of a corresponding obligation requires an agreement between parties (section 12 of the Employment Contracts Act – an employment contract can only be amended as a result of an agreement between the parties).

- The court agrees that the defender must retain some capacity for altering work safety rules unilaterally. /.../ However, this can only concern individual practices or occupational safety devices in a way that does not greatly alter working conditions or employee suitability.

- Because a vaccination obligation has no legal basis, it does not constitute an order the employees had to comply with. In addition, such an order does not pertain to the plaintiffs' duties but only their personal health matters. Refusal to vaccinate also cannot be interpreted as ignoring sensible orders from the employer or a violation of the duties of employment.

- Refusal to vaccinate cannot be regarded as limiting the plaintiffs' work ability. It can no more serve as basis for deeming the plaintiffs unfit for duty, unable to adjust or unskilled.

The court ordered the defender to pay the plaintiffs varying sums in compensation, with the largest single payment set at €16,000.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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