Should you take a bullet for your company? Utah Supreme Court considers fired Wal-Mart workers’ case

Posted at 5:24 PM, Sep 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-03 23:41:14-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit involving company policies and self-defense, which could have impacts on every business in the state.

In January 2011, six workers were fired after they fought with a shoplifter who pulled a gun on them inside a Layton Wal-Mart. The company claimed the employees violated Wal-Mart's policy of disengaging, withdrawing and alerting authorities.

But the employees claim it was a matter of self-defense.

"They're in an office, writing little lawyer things," said Gabriel Stewart, one of the fired employees. "They don't know what it really feels like to be scared and to feel like your life is in jeopardy."

Stewart was the manager of that Wal-Mart. He said he and his co-workers were in a room with the suspect who pulled a gun, unable to just "walk away."

"They saw that my life was threatened and, at a certain point, I think they made a decision to react. It was a natural self-defense," he told FOX 13. "They probably saved my life."

In arguments before the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday, the fired workers asked for changes to state laws to allow for self-defense.

"We're asking for a reasonable protection for conduct that is in response to a threat of death or bodily injury," their attorney, Lorraine Brown, said.

A lawyer for Wal-Mart said the company's policies are there to specifically ensure workplace safety.

"They're asset protection workers," Wal-Mart attorney Kathleen Toth said. "They're not security guards. They're not armed. They're not trained to tackle or take someone down."

The five justices of the Utah Supreme Court peppered lawyers for both sides with questions, looking beyond the issue of the firing. They noted this could impact other companies in Utah.

"In this instance where it's not safe to withdraw, does an employee's right of self defense trump any employer policy?" asked Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant.

Justice Christine Durham was more blunt, asking Wal-Mart's attorney if it was acceptable "that an employer can fire somebody for refusing to take a bullet for the company?"

The court took the case under advisement. A ruling is expected within the year.

In a statement to FOX 13 late Wednesday, Wal-Mart said:

"Our number one concern is always the safety of our customers and associates. We won't condone behavior where associates take matters into their own hands and act in a manner that jeopardizes the safety of themselves and other people at our stores. We appreciate the state supreme court’s consideration of this important matter, and we look forward to the court’s decision."