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Can an Employee be Terminated for Self Defense?

In a ruling that is sure to have far-reaching ramifications for employers, the Utah Supreme Court has issued a ruling upholding an employee’s right to act in self-defense on the job. The court has ruled that employers who fire workers for defending themselves may be guilty of wrongful termination.

Fired%2053061626-001.jpgThe determination of wrongdoing hinges on two conditions. First, the employee must reasonably believe that the use of force is necessary in order to “defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily harm.” Second, the worker must have no opportunity to simply withdraw from the threat.

The case before the court was Ray v. Wal-Mart Stores. Five employees from two different Wal-Marts were caught up in two separate incidents involving violent individuals. All five of the workers were fired under Wal-Mart’s no-confrontation policy, which requires employees to withdraw from violent situations and call for help, regardless of the circumstances involved.

In one case, a shoplifter threatened employees with a knife. The workers managed to wrest the knife away from the woman and avoid injury, but they were later terminated. In the other case, a shoplifter held three employees at gunpoint inside a closed office, including shoving one worker into a wall and holding the gun to his back. The workers struggled with the man and retrieved the gun. These workers were also fired.

The terminated workers sued Wal-Mart for wrongful discharge in federal court. The federal court, in turn, asked the Utah Supreme Court to determine whether, assuming the workers’ actions truly were in self-defense, Wal-Mart’s policy would be recognized under Utah law.

The Utah court’s ruling stated that an individual’s right of self-defense is drawn directly from the state’s constitution and specific Utah statutes, as well as from common law. The court further stated that this right “protects human life and deters crime,” and confers “substantial benefits on the public.” Additionally, the court ruled that the workers’ right to defend themselves from bodily harm carries more weight than their employer’s business interests.