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Your job or your life?
No so fast, the Utah Supreme Court declared in a ruling Friday that says employers cannot fire workers who fight back when they are in imminent danger of harm from others.
The decision from a case in which Wal-Mart employees were fired for wrestling with shoplifting customers who brandished weapons expands the circumstances under which Utah law protects at-will employees from losing their jobs.
"We hold that Utah law does not require employees to make that choice," the court ruled in a 4-1 decision.
The ruling sends the case back to federal court, where five employees, formerly of Wal-Mart stores in Layton and West Valley City, had sued the giant retailer. Wal-Mart had fired them for violating a policy that requires them to withdraw from potentially violent situations and call police. A sixth ex-employee sued after being fired over a confrontation with another worker's angry husband.
"This case will now proceed to trial," said Lorraine Brown, the Ogden attorney representing the fired workers.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby sent the case to the Utah Supreme Court to determine whether state law provides protections from being fired for engaging in self-defense.
The four Supreme Court justices said the Utah Constitution, state law and public policy including stand-your-ground laws favor a right to self-defense and create an exception to the doctrine that gives businesses substantial leeway in firing employees who are not under contract.
"Although we acknowledge that Wal-Mart's interest in regulating its workforce is important, we conclude that there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense," Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote for the majority.
In a dissent, Justice Thomas Lee said "Utah's public interest in preserving a right of self-defense is insufficient to override Wal-Mart's legitimate interests in holding its workers to the policy at issue."
Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the corporation's first concern remains the safety of its customers and employees, "and we don't condone behavior that puts them at risk."
"We believe this sets a bad precedent for businesses and the customers they serve," he said, adding the company was reviewing its options in light of the ruling.
The decision, the court said, extends only to encounters when 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."
In a January 2011 incident at a Wal-Mart in Layton, three employees confronted a man who had put a laptop computer down his pants and escorted him to a security office. There, the man showed them a gun and, the employees claim, pushed it into one of their backs.
The three grabbed the weapon away and pinned him against a wall before police arrived. They were fired because Wal-Mart said they should have allowed the man to leave the office and not wrestled with him.
Two employees were fired at the Wal-Mart in West Valley City after an incident on Christmas Eve 2010, when they grabbed a shoplifter who was attempting to run. The thief then pulled a knife and threatened to stab them. Wal-Mart said the two should have backed away from the woman instead of grabbing her, though the employees say they had nabbed the woman before she brandished the knife.
In a November 2010 incident, an employee was fired after he confronted a man who he said had grabbed the arm of his wife, a Wal-Mart worker, and shoved her and yelled obscenities.