At-will employment generally allows employment to end – by either the employer or employee – for any reason or no reason, other than for a violation of law. In West Virginia, as in many states, the rule that an employer has an absolute right to discharge an at-will employee is further tempered by the principle that where the employer’s motivation for the discharge contravenes some “substantial public policy,” then the employer may be liable to the employee for damages stemming from the discharge.
Typically, when an employee has been fired because that employee acted in self-defense in response to lethal imminent danger, such right of self-defense constitutes such a violation of public policy, and is an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. In fact, the firing of an employee after such an act could lead to an employee’s successful wrongful discharge claim.
While this standard has been reiterated in the court decisions in many states, the West Virginia state Supreme Court has limited such “wrongful discharge” claims by holding that the exception is limited to “only the most dangerous of circumstances.” Newton v. Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics of WV, Inc. S. Ct., November 19, 2019.
In that case, the plaintiff, who was a Truck Dispatcher, was involved in a workplace argument with a company truck driver; the argument escalated into a physical altercation. After both employees were fired, plaintiff sued the company, asserting that he was “forced to defend himself” and “did not apply any force beyond what was necessary to protect himself.” He claimed that his firing violated the WV public policy of acting in self-defense.
The lower court dismissed the complaint on the basis that plaintiff’s conduct was not in response to “lethal imminent danger,” but rather was in response to a workplace argument. Plaintiff appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s dismissal. The Supreme Court found that because plaintiff was engaged in a workplace altercation “that did not involve weapons, dangerous circumstances, or a threat of lethal imminent danger,” his termination did not violate any public policy that supports self-defense in such situations.
The Supreme Court specifically held that while a particular employee may assert a public policy right to self-defense, an employer also has an interest in protecting its employees and customers from harm that could occur as a result of the employee’s actions in defending himself.
Employers have a duty safeguard employees, and to keep the workplace safe by prohibiting workplace altercations. Therefore, punishment (including termination) of all individuals involved in a workplace altercation will be supported – in West Virginia and other states with a self-defense public policy exceptions – other than in the “most dangerous of circumstances.”
Photo from “The Office” – Dwight does karate . . . sort of.