An armored truck guard in Spokane left his truck to help a woman being chased by a man with a knife.
The company fired the guard on grounds he violated a rule that he stay in the truck.
Was the firing unjustified because it violated something more compelling than a work rule - a public policy that one should help somebody in mortal danger?
The state Supreme Court heard arguments on the question Friday. The court must rule on the issue before a wrongful dismissal suit filed by fired guard Kevin Gardner can be heard in federal court.
But what might seem to be a slam-dunk for the plaintiff became less so as the debate wore on.
Put simply, the reason for the ironclad work rule is that there are numerous examples of criminals luring guards from armored vehicles by faking assaults and screaming for help, Patrick Folan, a lawyer for Loomis Armored Inc., told the court.
In many of those cases, including one in Lynnwood in 1991, the guard was duped by a robber’s ruse and then slain, Folan said.
But Paul Burns, the lawyer representing Gardner, said that in this case, the court should find that his client was justified in breaking the work rule because of more compelling circumstances.
The case “cries out” for Gardner’s reinstatement, Burns told the court.
First of all, he said, Gardner had every reason to believe the 1994 incident was real, which it turned out to be.
The incident began, Burns noted, when Gardner and his partner drove their armored truck up to the Seafirst Bank in north Spokane and the partner got out to go inside while Gardner remained locked in the vehicle.
A few minutes later, Gardner saw a woman run from the bank, followed by a man carrying a knife. Gardner knew the woman from his years of making deliveries at the bank. The woman managed to elude the assailant, who then seized another woman and went back into the bank.
In response, Gardner went into the bank, disarmed the knife-wielding man and freed the hostage.
Burns said Gardner knew the woman being threatened and could be fairly certain it was not a ruse.
Secondly, Burns argued, state public policy, as reflected in many state laws, puts a higher value on saving somebody’s life than on work rules.
U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush of Spokane wants the state court to rule whether it is a violation of state public policy for a company to fire an employee for violating a company rule “to go to the assistance of a citizen held hostage at the scene of a crime, and who was in danger of serious physical injury or death.”
The federal judge wants the question answered before he proceeds with Gardner’s suit.
Loomis moved for dismissal of the case but Quackenbush said no.
“The rule has been universally adopted (in the armored car industry) that no matter what appears to be occurring outside the vehicle, the guards are to remain inside,” Folan said.
That policy, he said, is designed for the protection of workers.
Folan said the guards inside the trucks have telephones and other tools to summon help for people in need.
But Burns said that in this case, the assailant was only about 15 feet from the bank manager, and Gardner believed the only real help would be his personal intervention.
The state high court is expected to rule by early next year.