Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Question of Self-Defense?

On September 3, 2014, the Utah Supreme Court heard argument in the case of Ray et al. v. Wal-Mart.  The plaintiffs---Ray, Dallin, Holt, Hunter, Poulsen, and Stewart---were Wal-Mart Employees terminated for, of all things, self-defense.  As at-will employees, of course, plaintiffs could have been terminated at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all, so the question is whether self-defense is a public-policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. (This is actually a federal case, the issue having been certified to the Utah Supreme Court by the Utah federal district court.) 

Utah law imposes no duty to retreat before acting either in self-defense or in defense of another.  Wal-Mart policy, however, calls for "disengagement and de-escalation" so as to preclude, as far as possible, danger to its customers, staff, and stock.

In January of 2011, three of the plaintiffs took a shoplifter into custody.  In their security office, the shoplifter produced a gun, shoving it, reportedly, into one's back. The three plaintiffs managed to take the gun from him, but Wal-Mart terminated all three for failing to back off and let the shoplifter leave the office.  On Christmas Eve of 2010, two of the plaintiffs pursued and apprehended a shoplifter, who pulled a knife.  Wal-Mart terminated the two plaintiffs, however, asserting they should have backed away.  Finally, the last of the six plaintiffs was fired for shoving the confrontational husband of another employee instead of letting him drag her away.

During oral argument (here), Wal-Mart's attorney characterized the issue as whether policy for Wal-Mart should remain in the hands of Wal-Mart or in the hands of the judiciary.  (The Justices, particularly Justice Durham, vehemently disagreed with this characterization.)  Plaintiffs' council, on the other hand, described it as the "terrible question" of employees having to choose between keeping their jobs or protecting their lives.