Wal-Mart Must Defer|to Self-Defense Rights

     (CN) – Though Wal-Mart has a policy against roughing up shoplifters, it cannot fire workers for relying on their rights to self-defense, the Utah Supreme Court ruled.
     A federal judge had sought guidance from the state court before ruling on a wrongful-termination action brought by five individuals whom Wal-Mart fired after their involvement in physical confrontations with shoplifting customers.
     Wal-Mart’s policy specifies that an employee must “disengage from the confrontation” if a shoplifting suspect becomes violent.
     Derek Holt and Eric Hunter confronted a shoplifter at the Wal-Mart in West Valley City, grabbing her arms when she tried to run away. The shoplifter pulled out a knife and threatened to stab them if they didn’t let go.
     Holt and Hunter maintained their grip, and a customer disarmed the shoplifter.
     Wal-Mart fired both workers and another trio from its store in Layton.
     The Layton incident involved Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Gabriel Stewart confronting a customer who was trying to hide a laptop in his pants.
     Poulsen said the customer surrendered the laptop but that a struggle ensued when she noticed he was also carrying a gun. The employees disarmed the customer, but they also lost their jobs.
     The federal judge presiding over the employees’ case noted that the claims raise a novel issue under Utah law: “whether the right of self-defense is the type of public policy that provides an exception to the at-will employment doctrine.”
     Answering that question last week, the Utah Supreme Court concluded 4-1 “that the policy favoring the right of self-defense is a public policy of sufficient clarity and weight to qualify as an exception to the at-will employment doctrine.”
     “But we limit the exception to situations 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,” Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote for the majority.
     Finding that the Utah Constitution supports the right to self-defense, Durrant added that Utah’s Legislature passed a “Stand Your Ground” law in 1994.
     “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,” he wrote.
     Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote in dissent that the ruling is premature since there is no record as to “whether the employee-plaintiffs responded reasonably to an imminent threat or overreacted in the face of a meaningful path for retreat.”
     “Wal-Mart made a reasonable judgment in concluding that its employees fought back when they reasonably could have disengaged,” Lee wrote. “For me that is easily enough to defeat the public policy basis for a wrongful termination in this case.”
     Justice Ronald Nehring did not participate in the ruling because of his retirement, and Justice Deno Himonas did not participate either since he only joined the court in February.

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