Utah court decides Wal-Mart workers have right to self-defense

Derek Holt was fired from Wal-Mart after an incident with a suspected armed shoplifter. (Photo: Desert News)

Derek Holt was fired from Wal-Mart after an incident with a suspected armed shoplifter. (Photo: Desert News)

A group of Wal-Mart workers fired after two incidents with armed customers do have a right to self defense, the Utah Supreme Court decided in a 4-1 ruling last week.

The wrongful termination lawsuit, now heading back to federal court, involves two separate incidents at the West Valley and Layton stores, where five employees grabbed suspected shoplifters, one armed with a knife, the other a gun, the Associated Press reported.

The employees, Derek Holt, Eric Hunter, Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Gabriel Stewart were fired in 2011 after Wal-Mart argued they should not have grabbed the suspected shoplifters, Desert News reported.

The Layton suspect was allegedly attempting 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.

According to Wal-Mart policy, if a suspect is believed to be armed with a weapon, he or she must not be approached. 

The court rejected Wal-Mart’s contention that an employment agreement could supersede Utah’s “clear and substantial” public policy to self-defense, calling the right an exception to an at-will employment contract, according to its opinion.

“Utah‘s Stand Your Ground statute and common law decisions also reflect a public policy favoring the right of self-defense. … In this case, because the right of self-defense protects human life and deters crime, we conclude that the right is a matter of broad public importance, not merely an internal matter of employer-employee relations,” Thursday’s opinion reads.

Wal-Mart further argued that self-defense doesn’t outweigh employers’ interest in keeping their workplace safe through non-confrontation and de-escalation policies, to which the court rejected the company’s claim, but only in instances where an imminent threat of serious bodily harm presented itself.

Utah District Court Judge A.C.J. Lee was the dissenting vote and held that Wal-Mart workers do not have the right to self-defense in the workplace and that the company has a vested interest in de-escalating incidents. He said the majority vote assumed the employees were unable to safely disengage from the confrontations, but that assumption isn’t at the core of the question certified for review.

“It is an outgrowth of the summary judgment posture of the case as it currently stands,” Lee wrote. “The certified question presented is whether the right of self-defense sustains a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine that provides a basis for a wrongful discharge action in this case.”

Lee further wrote that this decision could result in injuries to employees and customers, but made clear he wasn’t trying to rule out the possibility of the right to self-defense being an exception to at-will employment. 

“But we should not broadly assume that the exercise of constitutional rights is a basis for a claim for wrongful termination against a private employer,” Lee wrote.    

Utah passed its “stand your ground” law in 1994 and recognizes a duty to retreat.