SALT LAKE CITY — In a split ruling, the Utah Supreme Court sided with a group of Wal-Mart workers who were fired for exercising self-defense when confronting an armed shoplifter.

The case stems from an incident in January 2011, when six workers were fired after they fought with a shoplifter who pulled a gun on them inside the Layton Wal-Mart. The company had claimed the employees violated Wal-Mart’s policy of disengaging, withdrawing and alerting authorities.

During a hearing last year, Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham bluntly asked if an employer should be able to fire somebody “for refusing to take a bullet for the company?”

In an opinion handed down on Friday, the state’s top court ruled that “Utah law reflects a policy favoring the right of self-defense, and that policy is of sufficient magnitude to qualify as a substantial public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, but only under the narrow circumstances where an employee cannot withdraw and faces imminent serious bodily injury.”

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