Utah’s high court says workers have the right to protect themselves
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.
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.
- Shawn H. Ray, Gabriel M. Stewart, Lori Poulsen, Derek Holt, and Eric Hunter, Appellants, v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Appellee – Supreme Court of the State of Utah
- Fired Wal-Mart workers had a right to defend themselves, Utah’s high court says – The Salt Lake Tribune
- Court: Threatened Wal-Mart Employees Have the Right to Stand Their Ground – The Wall Street Journal (sub. required)
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?