In the Trenches: Good samaritan out of an Acme job for "causing a ruckus"

July 18, 2007
An Acme worker, a former military man, leaves company property to aid a woman being mugged. His next pay check has a termination notice. What happened and how could it have been avoided?

When he landed a job at Acme, Shellie Lee thought his life was going to be much better. The job on the loading dock paid reasonably well, permitted him to spend part of his day outside the building, and didn’t require him to interact with many people. A big draw was that Acme fielded softball league team competing against the other businesses in this industrial neighborhood. Shellie was competitive, that’s for sure, and the teams took these outings seriously. The losers were obligated to pay for the keg of beer both sides enjoyed at the end of each game.

Shellie was former military, having recently served two miserable tours of duty simply because he couldn’t think of anything better to do with his life. After he was badly wounded, the military simply ejected him back into the states to make room for someone else.

He had hoped for a warmer hero’s welcome in the business world than he perceived he was getting. He had some skills and was trainable. After all, the military taught this inept lad to survive and dominate in hostile surroundings. For two full years, they had him trying to win the hearts and minds of skeptical noncombatants while being ready at a moment’s notice to inflict the measures, bare-handed, if necessary, the military taught him to perform with perfection and without a second thought. It was a perpetual adrenaline high that left him exhausted.

In those two fateful years, Shellie had seen a lifetime’s worth of violence and wanted no part of it any longer. He became, if not an outright pacifist, a recovering war machine living just this side of decidedly antisocial behavior. He felt that mankind had disappointed him.

Once out of uniform, he was struck by the pace at which globalization fomented change. Everything evolved much faster than he remembered. He was amazed at the business and societal changes that occurred while he was gone. Those who stayed here might not notice it, but the work world had evolved quite a bit in just a few years. His old rules, guidelines and expectations no longer applied.

Initially, civilian life was depressing. Shellie found it harder to find a job than he expected. The overseas experiences and the cultural disconnect he felt upon his return affected his behavior and attitudes. This might explain why he wound up as a loading dock laborer at Acme’s warehouse in a downtrodden part of town frequented by a rather unsavory cast of neighborhood characters. It reminded him of the neighborhoods in which he spent two years. So, like before, he just persevered and did his job.

And so it went, until one morning when Shellie heard a woman scream outside the building somewhere nearby. He ran to the dock door to investigate and saw a couple involved in an altercation across the street near the doorway to an abandoned building. Shellie realized this was a mugging in progress when he saw the man knock the woman down and start punching her to make her let go of her purse.

Shellie made a quick assessment of the situation and knew he could take the guy. As he started to run out the door, he wheeled around and grabbed a baseball bat from the locker. Shellie ran across the street, yelling at the assailant and making threatening gestures with the bat. Before he made it to the far curb, the mugger was already half-way down the block and not looking back.

Shellie picked up the purse and handed it to the hysterical woman. He calmed her down and brought her back into the Acme building, settled her in and called the police. By the time the squad car arrived, the dock area was full of curious Acme workers who were attracted by the commotion. After explanations all around and Shellie volunteering to be a witness if the perp is ever caught and brought to trial, the police drove the woman home and things at Acme settled into the usual routine.

When he picked up his pay envelope on Friday, Shellie noticed that it was thicker than usual. When he opened it, he found a termination notice stapled to the check. He marched to the plant office to search for his boss, Cliff Doueller, to demand an explanation.

Cliff told Shellie that, yes, he’s been fired for causing the ruckus when that woman got mugged. Shellie argued that he only did the right thing. Everyone, he said, has a right and an obligation to come to the aid of someone at risk of bodily harm.

Cliff didn’t see it that way. All he knew was that Shellie took the bat, company property, and walked off company property while he was supposed to be on duty. Then, Cliff added, Shellie used that Acme property to involve himself in a fight that was neither the company’s business nor his business. That action put Acme at risk of a liability claim. Just before he turned and walked away, Cliff ended the conversation by saying, "We can fire you any time we want, and we just did."

How could this situation have been avoided? Should companies have a policy that forbids workers to leave the property in the middle of a shift? If so, should they enforce it under this type of circumstances? Is abandoning one’s post sufficient reason to be terminated? If the law won’t help, what other recourse might Shellie try? Did the company really have just cause for firing Shellie since no one was hurt, the bat wasn’t used and there is no proof of any harm?

An attorney says:

As a society, we should be grateful that most corporations aren’t as mean spirited and narrow-minded as Acme was in this case. Acme should have given Shellie the hero’s award at the annual Christmas party, not a pink slip. We’ve all read the dismal press reports of people being mugged or even killed while bystanders looked on but refused to get involved. Would Acme management have enjoyed reading press reports that one of its employees stood on the loading dock, watched the woman being victimized, and did nothing?

Cliff was correct that Acme could fire Shellie any time it wanted, presuming he was an employee at will. There is one legal argument that could be raised in Shellie’s favor. While the law allows an employer to terminate an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, it doesn’t permit the discharge of an employee for engaging in an act that the law allows the employee to perform, such as filing a workers’ compensation claim or serving on a jury. The argument Shellie could use to challenge his discharge is that the law supports good Samaritans, and terminating an employee for being a good Samaritan violates public policy. I don’t recall seeing a case in which a similar argument was raised, but it certainly would be worth a try.

It’s an almost universal rule of the workplace that employees are prohibited from leaving the premises during a working shift without permission from the supervisor. Such a leaving is often called job abandonment. However, like every rule, it must be applied with discretion. Strict adherence to the rule would have resulted in employees being terminated for exiting the inferno that the World Trade Center became on September 11.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Like it or not, a company gets to choose whether it prioritizes legal liability over helping people in trouble. That's a corporate decision. The problem in this case is that Acme never made that decision. Given Acme's location, it was reasonable to anticipate that employees might witness a crime. Acme should have been prepared for such a predictable event by providing a written policy outlining how employees are to respond if they witness a crime in progress. In the absence of any explicit policy regarding how employees are to respond, it was Acme, not Shellie, who generated the liability here.

Once the event occurred, Acme should have conducted an all-hands meeting in which Shellie could have been acknowledged for having put himself at risk on behalf of the victim. After expressing relief that both Shellie and the victim were unharmed, Acme could have clarified the vulnerability this created for the company, distributed the written guidance document for the protection of employees and the organization, and made arrangements to install a phone on the loading dock to expedite 911 calls.

The summary termination of Shellie was both outrageous and stupid: outrageous because Shellie violated no rule, and stupid because it’ll likely produce a well-deserved public relations nightmare for Acme. Even if located in an "at will" state, where terminations can occur without cause, the method by which Shellie was notified of his termination was unprofessional and unjustifiably cavalier. Whether or not Cliff thought Shellie did the right thing isn't the issue. Cliff should have gone to the mat for Shellie strictly on the basis that Acme had no policy prohibiting such an act.

This case has nothing to do with whether Shellie was depressed, and it has nothing to do with whether Acme was within its rights. Instead, this case is about the absence of responsible leadership within Acme. Responsible leadership would have recognized the vulnerabilities attendant to the location, would have prepared for these vulnerabilities, and wouldn’t have used an employee as a scapegoat to cover its own sloppiness.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected]

An academician says:

If I were Shellie, I’d call the newspapers on this one. It’d make a great story. Imagine the headline - “Hero gets fired for saving woman from mugger.” That ought to get Shellie some nice job offers, and he’s bound to find a job that’s a sight better than the one on the dock at Acme.

Acme is out of line on this one. There are always “extraordinary circumstances” that aren’t covered in the employee manual, circumstances that overrule the policies outlined in the manual. This is one of them. Acme could have basked in a lot of favorable publicity if they had honored Shellie for his heroism. But instead, they acted stupidly. Actually, they might have done Shellie a favor. He might get a much better job out of their stupidity.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

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