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SALT LAKE CITY — Five former Wal-Mart employees who said they were wrongfully fired after defending themselves and disarming weapon-wielding shoplifters now have the backing of the state's highest court.
In a 4-1 decision, the Utah Supreme Court on Friday sided with the employees, noting that they had a right to defend themselves. Wal-Mart terminated the employees, saying their actions violated company policy and put their fellow workers and shoppers at risk.
"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," the court opinion states. "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."
The wrongful termination suit was based on two incidents. The first was at a West Valley Wal-Mart where employees Derek Holt and Eric Hunter grabbed a suspected shoplifter who in turn pulled out a pocket knife and threatened to stab them, according to court records. Both men were fired.
The second incident was at a Layton Wal-Mart in 2011 when Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Gabriel Stewart detained a customer who they said was trying to steal a laptop.
"Ms. Poulsen saw the customer move a gun from his back to his coat pocket. A physical struggle ensued, resulting in the Wal-Mart employees pinning the customer against a wall and grabbing the gun," the high court described in its opinion.
Those employees were also fired.
Wal-Mart policy states that "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, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement."
Wal-Mart responded to the court's ruling Friday, saying the decision sets a bad precedent.
"Our No. 1 concern is always the safety of our customers and associates, and we don't condone behavior that puts them at risk. We respectfully disagree with the court's decision and will review our options," said Randy Hargrove, national media relations director. "We believe this sets a bad precedent for businesses and the customers they serve."
The employees sued Wal-Mart in federal court claiming the box-store chain was in violation of Utah public policy. All causes of action other than their claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy were dismissed. The Utah Supreme Court was asked to make a determination on the wrongful termination question and whether self-defense is a substantial public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine.
"We conclude that there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense," the Utah Supreme Court justices wrote.
The court's said "the right of self-defense is enshrined in Utah statutes," and public policy supporting the right of self-defense outweighs an employer's own workplace regulations when the employee is faced with the imminent threat of serious bodily injury and does not have the opportunity to retreat.
Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee wrote a dissenting opinion. He said the court was only assuming that the employees were in imminent danger and couldn't run away.
"The reality is that we do not know exactly what happened in the confrontations that led to the wrongful termination claims against Wal-Mart. And at a minimum, the record on summary judgment supports the conclusion that Wal-Mart made a reasonable judgment in concluding that its employees fought back when they reasonably could have disengaged. For me that is easily enough to defeat the public policy basis for a claim for wrongful termination in this case," Lee wrote.
"Today's decision jeopardizes employee safety in Utah. And it opens the door to a free-wheeling, case-by-case public policy exception that threatens to swallow the rule of at-will employment."