Utah’s high court says workers have the right to protect themselves

Discussion
Sep 22, 2015

Workers at Walmart (and other retailers) cannot be fired for engaging threatening customers if they feel they are in physical danger. That is the ruling of the Supreme Court of Utah, after hearing a wrongful termination suit brought by five former Walmart employees who were fired after violating the company’s policy of non-resistance in cases involving aggressive individuals in its stores.

In one case, two workers were terminated after they confronted and disarmed a female shoplifter with a knife. In the other case, loss prevention employees disarmed a shoplifter attempting to steal a laptop after he brandished a gun.

In both cases, according to Walmart, the shoplifters said they wanted to leave the premises after being caught in the act. When weapons were produced, the associates were required by company policy to let the thieves leave. Walmart’s policy is common across retailing and intended to protect workers from harm and the company from potential lawsuits.

Walmart associates

Photo: Walmart





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Chief Justice Matthew B. Durant wrote in the court’s opinion: "Although we acknowledge that Walmart’s interest in regulating its workforce is important, we conclude that there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense for three reasons. First, the right of self-defense is enshrined in Utah statutes, the Utah Constitution, and our common law decisions. Second, a policy favoring the right protects human life and deters crime, conferring substantial benefits on the public. And third, the public policy supporting the right of self-defense outweighs an employer’s countervailing interests in circumstances where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily injury and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw."

The Utah ruling means that the former workers’ case against Walmart will go back to federal court. It was the federal court that first sent the case to the justices in Utah to determine if state law would prevent their termination. Utah operates under an "at will employment doctrine" that gives businesses wide latitude in managing their workforces.

Do you agree with Walmart’s non-engagement policy when it comes to individuals threatening violence in its stores? Should there be exceptions to the rule as determined by the Supreme Court of Utah?

Braintrust
"Laws, courts and employers must all use discretion here. The only thing the employer should make absolutely clear is that the employee is NOT expected to endanger themselves in any way just to prevent theft."
"No employee should risk self or others by responding in a manner that may tend to escalate a property crime into violence or injury. This includes injury to the perpetrator, by the way."

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10 Comments on "Utah’s high court says workers have the right to protect themselves"

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Steve Montgomery
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
I have operated or consulted in the retail space my entire career. Every company I worked in or with had/has a rule similar to Walmart’s. I understand their rationale — money or items can be replaced. People can’t. What would the headlines be if someone got hurt deterring a shoplifter? Walmart fails to protect it employees? I believe Walmart assumes that having the rule in place helps prevent someone from playing hero” over some merchandise which can lead to more employees trying to do the same thing. With all of the above in mind, I would support the right of… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

There should always be exceptions to the rule when violent customers are threatening the lives of employees and customers. If criminals know that they can come in and bully employees with weapons and face no resistance, it will only encourage them to commit more violence. In order to have an effective loss prevention team you really don’t want pacifists, but rather brave and assertive people who look forward to catching criminals and not making excuses to let them go.

Roger Saunders
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
While I personally have a strong belief that individuals have a right to defend themselves and their property, I also believe that a retailer does well in providing employee handbook information and practices by which they believe all associates must abide. Walmart, and other retailers that have this policy should continue to state and enforce their policies. Attempting to disarm even a seemingly non-threatening shoplifter is a recipe for further physical violence. The practice of calling the police is the right practice. Know that anyone of us could posture examples of extreme situations in which a life may be in… Read more »
Ben Ball
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
This case exemplifies that oh-so-fine line any individual who feels threatened must walk if they choose to defend themselves or protect others. On the one hand, employers are right to say to employees, “it is not your job to protect our merchandise at the risk of harm to yourself. Don’t do it. You are not the local sheriff and we don’t want you acting as one on our behalf.” On the other hand, employers are completely wrong to say to employees, “you are not allowed to defend yourself or to take actions you deem necessary to protect others if you… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

I understand the reason for Walmart’s policy. It is supposed to protect the employee. The goods taken were not worth the risking of human life. And now for the but.

If the employee feels threatened and feels that the person with the weapon may hurt them even if they would be allowed to leave the store, they should have the ability to protect themselves. I vote with the Utah Supreme Court.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
The court’s ruling will only serve to initiate a torrent of lawsuits throughout the 50 states. Not exactly what the beleaguered taxpayers or the company need. This is another demonstration of the company making mistakes that create hundreds of new jobs for lawyers, clerks and accountants. Not exactly the corporate expansion a fully responsible executive would initiate or endorse. If the corporate policy had been closely scrutinized by a competent legal mind the potential of conflict between the rights of an individual versus the needs of the company would have shown the obvious and inevitable collision course. The money to… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
If the peanut butter case represents one where the conduct is so egregious and the facts so plain that the particular decision is almost unavoidable, this one is just the opposite: the decision hinges entirely upon a particular set of circumstances and how they are interpreted. The problem with the decision, as I see it, is that it invites employees to engage in conduct where they themselves create the necessity for self-defense by provoking an aggressor—however innocent the provocation may seem—and applies a private behavior standard to a business setting. I’m not intimate with the details of the case, and… Read more »
Roy White
Guest
Roy White
2 years 2 months ago
Walmart’s rule should stand. It is correct. It is not the role of store associates, even those in security, to assume the role of police officers. If the shoplifter was on the way out, then let him go rather than endanger the staff or other customers. There are too many “ifs” and too much that can go wrong by being proactive in a crime situation, unless the situation is so dire that requires immediate action on the part of the bystander. The situation faced by the Walmart associates would have been different had the shoplifter been threatening or refusing to… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
Exceptions, exceptions, and exceptions. The Utah court ruled correctly. In a Michigan case with a retailer, the court ruled against a pharmacist that carried a licensed weapon in a national drug chain that saved his life and potentially the life of others. Court case lost. One pharmacist alive. Fair enough. The demand for pharmacists is great, but not so for some other positions. Drawing a distinct line is difficult. Protecting one’s own life, the life of a fellow associate, and the lives customers has to be taken into consideration. As already pointed out, there simply has to be discretion given.… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
2 years 2 months ago
The non-engagement rules in place at Walmart and many other retailers may seem to embolden common shoplifters, but I believe the reasoning behind them is sound. No employee should risk self or others by responding in a manner that may tend to escalate a property crime into violence or injury. This includes injury to the perpetrator, by the way. A civil suit and unwanted publicity can result from employees physically detaining an individual. But there will be situations that test these hard and fast rules—especially in instances where a thief shows a weapon in a manner that threatens the employee… Read more »
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Braintrust
"Laws, courts and employers must all use discretion here. The only thing the employer should make absolutely clear is that the employee is NOT expected to endanger themselves in any way just to prevent theft."
"No employee should risk self or others by responding in a manner that may tend to escalate a property crime into violence or injury. This includes injury to the perpetrator, by the way."

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