SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of fired Wal-Mart workers is fighting a store policy they say leaves them powerless to defend themselves even if their lives are at risk.
An attorney for six former employees argued before the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday that workers shouldn't have to choose between their safety and their jobs.
"No employee should ever be required to make this choice," said Lorraine Brown. She argued that Layton Wal-Mart workers were confronted with that choice in 2011, when a shoplifter pushed an employee against the wall and put a gun to his back. The workers were fired after they pinned the man and took his gun.
She said two West Valley City workers were fired in 2010 after a woman trying to shoplift about $40 worth of items threatened them with a knife on Christmas Eve. They pried it out of her hand.
In both those cases, Wal-Mart says the employees should have stopped and walked away. A Wal-Mart attorney said Wednesday that policy is designed to keep stores safe from situations that can quickly get out of hand.
"We have a right ... a huge public policy obligation, to make sure when we invite the public in, our establishment is safe," said Kathleen Toth.
She argued the employees could have ended the confrontations and the court shouldn't interfere with a private business's right to regulate their stores as they see fit.
Justices peppered both sides with questions. Justice Christine Durham said walking away from such a situation isn't always an option.
"Fighting is sometimes necessary if you want to stay alive," she said.
But Justice Thomas Lee said a store could have good reasons for preferring its employees don't take matters into their own hands.
"It doesn't at all seem unreasonable to me for a large retail establishment to choose de-escalation rather than stand-your-ground style of self-defense," he said.
The workers want the high court to say employees can't be fired for acting in self-defense. No deadline was immediately set for the court to issue a ruling.