In torts class, we often discuss the limitations placed on the protection of property under the common law. While many states have passed controversial Castle Doctrines or “Make My Day” laws and others have extended such privilege to use lethal force to cars or workplaces (under Make My Day Better laws), the common law does not allow people to use force calculated to cause serious bodily injury or death in defense of property. Many stores instruct employees not to use physical force with shoplifters for that reason or to try to stop armed robberies (including cases where stores have fired such heroes). It appears that a security officer is out of job after a scuffle with an alleged shoplifter caused the middle-aged suspect to have a heart attack and die outside of a Walmart.
Walmart employees and a security guard confronted the man in the store parking lot who reportedly shoplifted two DVD players. When the police arrived in Dekalb County, Georgia, they found the man was unresponsive and bleeding from the nose and mouth.
One of the employees had reportedly placed the man in a choke hold.
Walmart appears to have fired the security officer and put two employees on paid leave. Dianna Gee, a Walmart spokeswoman, said “[n]o amount of merchandise is worth someone’s life. Associates are trained to disengage from situations that would put themselves or others at risk.”
That is the view of the common law. However, the common law allows one to grab someone stealing property and try to retrieve it. If the person then resists, the case can change from defense of property to defense of self. Self-defense and defense of others have far greater ranges in the level of permissible violence. Indeed, you can use lethal force if you reasonably fear for your life. In this case, the employees could argue that they use commensurate levels of force not in the protection of property but in the protection of themselves or others.
With the level of violence or insanity during Black Friday sales, it is surprising that more such incidents do not occur. However, it is usually the customer-on-customer violence that makes the annual event so repulsive for many citizens.
It will be interesting to see if the man’s family sues despite the report that he was found with the stolen items. For Walmart, the cost of such litigation is too costly in comparison to the merchandise. This is why “strike suits” are so successful where companies settle for a few thousand dollars rather than incur litigation costs. Walmart would prefer to avoid such costs even in the face of blatant shoplifting as a cost of doing business.