This article was first published on HRLaws.com’s Tennessee Employment Law Letter by Butler Snow’s David L. Johnson
Recently, an Oregon Home Depot worker claimed that he was fired for helping a customer pursue a man she claimed kidnapped her child. Home Depot ended up changing its mind and allowed him to keep his position. However, this brings to mind a couple of Tennessee cases in which employees claimed they were unlawfully fired for acting as “Good Samaritans.” These employees learned the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished.
In the case of Little v. Eastgate of Jackson, Jason Little was working as a store clerk when he saw a man assaulting a woman across the street. Little grabbed a baseball bat and confronted the assailant, causing the assailant to flee. He was a hero, right? That’s not what his employer thought. His employer fired him because he abandoned the store to become involved in an altercation that was “none of our business.”
Little sued for common-law retaliatory discharge. To pursue such a claim, an employee must show that he was fired for exercising a legal right “or for any other reason which violates a clear public policy.” Little argued that Tennessee law reflects an important public policy of protecting citizens from bodily harm and preventing crime. The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed that Little could pursue his claim. The court recognized the “Tennessee public policy of encouraging citizens to rescue a person reasonably believed to be in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, and to protect a citizen who undertakes such heroic action from negative repercussions.”
A few years later, a Tennessee federal district court considered the application of this reasoning in Miller v. Home Depot. In that case, Murfreesboro Home Depot manager Robert Miller ran out of the store’s front door after hearing a commotion. He saw a coworker telling a man with a crowbar and a wad of cash to give back the money. The man threw down the crowbar and ran. Miller chased after him and restrained him before the police arrived. He was a hero, right? That’s not what Home Depot thought. Home Depot wasn’t grateful that Miller had retrieved the stolen money and instead fired him for violating company policy against unauthorized apprehensions and detaining shoplifters.
Miller also sued for common-law retaliatory discharge. He argued that he was acting in furtherance of public policy by pursuing a man who had stolen money and held a crowbar. The federal court, however, found that Miller couldn’t pursue a claim. What made Miller different from Little? The court of appeals made clear that an employee must show that the third party was in “imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.” In Miller, the perpetrator hadn’t made threats, had thrown down the crowbar, and was running away. Also, the court was unwilling to extend the public-policy exception to instances in which an employee was merely protecting property as opposed to another human being.
So what can be learned from all of this? There are good business reasons for discouraging employees from taking the law into their own hands. When that happens, things often don’t go as smoothly as they did in the Miller cases. For instance, what if the perpetrator in the Miller case had been concealing a handgun and had started shooting? Miller’s actions could have caused a bad situation to become a lot worse.
Nevertheless, employers should think twice before disciplining an employee who helps stop criminal activity. If the employee was helping rescue someone from the “imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm,” then Tennessee law prevents the employer from firing him.
David L. Johnson is an attorney in Butler Snow’s Nashville office. He can be reached at email@example.com.