Employees Can Defend Themselves Against Criminals, Says Utah Court

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on September 24, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Imagine getting fired from your job because you defended yourself during a robbery. Oddly, such things happen. Now the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that workers under serious threat can defend themselves and sue for wrongful termination if they are fired for failing to follow company safety policies.

The ruling stems from a 2011 incident when a shoplifter pulled a gun on Walmart employees. Six workers were fired for fighting the armed shoplifter, a move justified by their failure to follow designated de-escalation policies, the company said.

Taking One for the Team

According to Walmart, the workers were supposed to disengage, withdraw, and alert authorities, not get in a fight. But Gabriel Stewart, a former Walmart manager and one of the employees terminated, said at a hearing last year that they could not just walk away from the gun-wielding shoplifter. He believes his colleagues saved his life, Fox 13 News reported.

At that same hearing, Justice Christine Durham of the Utah Supreme Court asked Walmart's attorney if it is acceptable that "an employer can fire somebody for refusing to take a bullet for the company?"

The corporation argued yes. Walmart pointed out that the workers were not security guards trained to take down threats, so the de-escalation policies preventing self-defense actually protected employees.

A year later, the state's high court denied the company's tortured logic, finding that an individual's right to protect life trumps a business's interest in maintaining workplace safety -- especially when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury.

Three Reasons for the Ruling

The justices gave three reasons for their ruling, writing:

  1. Utah law strongly supports the right of self-defense while recognizing circumstances in which a person may have a duty to withdraw.
  2. A policy favoring the right of self-defense is also of broad public importance because it protects human life while deterring crime.
  3. Despite the strong interests employers have in maintaining a safe workplace through de-escalation policies, the right of individuals to defend themselves against imminent bodily injury or death is simply more compelling where the employee cannot safely withdraw.

Beyond Utah

The ruling in Utah may seem strange, stemming from a situation unlikely to arise again. But Walmart is not the first company that terminated employees for defending themselves more vigorously than permitted by the business's policy.

In 2013, a Nashua, New Hampshire gas station attendant lost his job of ten years when he scared off a would-be thief holding a knife, CBS News reported. The worker had a gun, which dissuaded the robber, who left without taking any money. Though no shots were fired, no one was hurt, and the clerk had a permit for his weapon, he was fired for failing to follow company policy, which was to just hand over the money.

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