Utah Supreme Court Grants Employees Right to Workplace Self-Defense in Wal-Mart Lawsuit

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 23, 2015

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Utah’s Supreme Court held that threatened employees have a right to defend themselves without fear of being fired for their actions.  The Court issued its ruling in a wrongful termination lawsuit by five former Wal-Mart employees who accused the company of unlawfully enforcing a policy that requires workers withdraw from situations where a shoplifter or customer pulls a weapon.  The Utah Supreme Court ruling will allow the wrongful termination lawsuit to proceed in federal court.

Wal-Mart Employees Fired for Refusing to Withdraw from Threatening Situations

All five of the plaintiff employees were part of a security team that was tasked with investigating, documenting, and preventing theft of Wal-Mart merchandise, but were limited by the company’s policy which read, “If the Suspect is believed to possess a weapon, the Suspect must not be approached.  If during an approach or investigation, it becomes apparent that the Suspect has a weapon or brandishes or threatens use of a weapon, all associates must disengage from the situation … and contact law enforcement.”

After two separate incidents – one which involved two of the plaintiffs subduing a shoplifter who pulled a knife, and the other when three of the plaintiffs wrestled a gun from a different shoplifter – all five plaintiffs were terminated by Wal-Mart for violating company policy against approaching suspects with weapons.  According to Wal-Mart company policy, the employees should have retreated to a safe distance and called local law enforcement rather than take action against a potentially threatening situation.

Upon their termination, the employees filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in federal court claiming that their terminations were a violation of Utah public policy which, according to the plaintiffs, allows employees to stand their ground against threats from suspected shoplifters.  The federal court hearing the lawsuit asked the Utah Supreme Court to determine whether or not Utah’s employment doctrine allowed employees to defend themselves if threatened.

Utah Supreme Court Rules that Threatened Employees have Right to Self-Defense

In employment at will states like Utah there are generally very few restrictions on when and why employers can terminate employment.  Typically, absent some union or other employment contract, a company is only precluded from firing an employee based on discrimination against race, gender, religion, and, in some states, sexual orientation.  However, in addition to general anti-discrimination laws against employment termination, some states, including Utah, have passed legislative restrictions on firing employees that bar employer retaliation when an employee is “exercising a legal right or privilege” in response to a circumstance that arises at their job.

Under this broad umbrella of “legal rights and privileges” the five former Wal-Mart employees alleged that the state of Utah had a public policy interest in allowing workers to stand their ground in the face of potential threats from customers or suspected shoplifters.  After reviewing the facts and state law, the Utah Supreme Court agreed, and found that employees have a right to on-the-job-self-defense “where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily harm and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw.”

Utah’s high court acknowledged that Wal-Mart has an interest in regulating employee conduct but cited Utah’s state constitution which grants citizens “the inherent and inalienable right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties” to conclude that it was in the state’s best interest to allow employees a right to self-defense while at work.  According to the Court, the state of Utah has a public policy interest in promoting the rights of a citizen to protect himself that cannot be infringed by an employer’s policy against self-defense confrontations.

Impact of Utah Supreme Court’s Employee Self-Defense Ruling

The immediate impact of the Utah Supreme Court granting employees within the state a right to self-defense against threats at work is that the case against Wal-Mart can proceed in federal court.  The plaintiffs must still convince a jury that they acted reasonably in the fact of danger – a point Wal-Mart disputes – but their case will be heard. 

It is difficult to predict a lasting impact of the decision outside of Utah, but within the state employees are now granted the right to reasonably defend themselves against threats of force by customers or potential shoplifters.  The ruling will not impact employment law across the country directly, but could be used to sway other state courts towards a similar conclusion should employees elsewhere seek similar rights to defend themselves when confronted with a potentially violent situation in the workplace.

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