In the recent decision Newton v. Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia limited the state’s public policy regarding the use of self-defense in the workplace. The plaintiff in Newton brought what is known as a Harless claim, alleging his former employer terminated him in violation of the state’s public policy of self-defense. After the Circuit Court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss, Newton appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.
Newton was an at-will employee of Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics. One day at work, a co-worker allegedly physically attacked Newton, and he claimed he was forced to defend himself. Newton claimed the co-worker was the “sole aggressor” and he “did not apply any force beyond what was necessary to protect himself.” The attack allegedly “created a dangerous situation where Mr. Newton reasonably feared serious bodily injury or even death.” Ultimately, the employer decided to fire both Newton and the co-worker over the incident. Newton then sued his former employer, alleging that termination infringed on his right to self-defense.
The theory Newton brought his claim under was established in Feliciano v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 210 W.Va. 740, 559 S.E.2d 713 (2001), where employees of a gas station seized and subdued potential robbers armed with a gun. Their actions violated 7-Eleven’s company policy that prohibited interference with an armed robbery, so the employees were terminated. The employees sued under Harless, arguing their termination for exercising self-defense was wrongful. After reviewing the state’s long history of self-defense from injury and in the home, the Supreme Court of Appeals announced the state’s public policy recognized a right to self-defense, but limited the self-defense public policy to “only the most dangerous of circumstances” and “in response to lethal imminent danger” in the workplace. Feliciano, 210 W. Va. at 749–50, 559 S.E.2d at 722–23.
Newton relied on this theory, but the Circuit Court was not convinced. After reviewing the complaint’s allegations, the Circuit Court concluded Newton was merely in an altercation with a co-worker “that did not involve weapons, dangerous circumstances, or a threat of lethal imminent danger.”
The Supreme Court of Appeals noted Feliciano’s precarious balance between an employee’s right to defend him/herself, and an employer’s right to safeguard its employees and patrons. Because of this balance, Feliciano only became applicable when an employee is acting “in response to lethal imminent danger.” After briefly examining the complaint, the Supreme Court determined Newton failed to “provide any facts that show he was ever faced with lethal imminent danger,” which was insufficient, particularly given the stark contrast between Newton’s fight with a co-worker versus dealing with “masked and armed robbers.”
In doing so, the Supreme Court clarified the importance of “lethal imminent danger” when claiming wrongful termination. By comparing Newton’s workplace altercation with the armed robbery in Feliciano, the Supreme Court clarified the self-defense public policy is narrow and limited, and only applicable in severe cases. Though the Supreme Court did not state exactly what this threshold was, it did hint that weapons, unknown/masked assailants, and presence of other violent crimes (i.e., robbery) may be key factors. Certainly, an ordinary physical scuffle is not sufficient. As a result, employers likely can discipline and/or terminate employees for interpersonal skirmishes, even when they turn physical, without implicating Feliciano.