About Us  |  Contact Us

Parking lot access not restricted enough for Mississippi employer to ban guns in locked vehicles

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Because a company failed to limit or restrict access to its employee parking area as required by Mississippi law in order to allow it to prevent employees from storing firearms in a locked vehicle on its lot, the company’s firing of an employee because he kept a firearm in his locked personal vehicle was wrongful. A federal district court in Mississippi granted the employee summary judgment on the issue of liability, finding that the language of the statute, §45-9-55, allows private employers to prohibit firearms in their employees’ cars only if access to the employee parking area is restricted or limited by gate, security station, or other similar barrier at or near the point of access. Here, the company’s security station was almost half a football field away from the parking area and across a public road; in addition, the parking area was neither gated nor fenced, but was “surrounded on all sides by roadways and open fields.” The court also allowed the issue of punitive damages to proceed to trial (Parker v. Leaf River Cellulose, LLC, May 18, 2017, Starrett, K.).

Fired for storing firearm in vehicle. The employee was fired by Leaf River Cellulose because he parked his vehicle in the company lot with a firearm locked inside, contrary to company policy. Under Mississippi law, a “private employer may not establish, maintain, or enforce any policy or rule that has the effect of prohibiting a person from transporting or storing a firearm in a locked vehicle in any parking lot, parking garage, or other designated parking area.” Under an exception in §45-9-55(2), private employers are allowed to prohibit firearms in their employees’ cars if “access is restricted or limited through the use of a gate, security station or other means.”

Filing suit and seeking damages in excess of $75,000, the employee claimed Leaf River violated this parking lot gun law. The district court originally dismissed his suit, however, because the same statute states that a “private employer shall not be liable in a civil action for damages resulting from or arising out of an occurrence involving the transportation, storage, possession or use of a firearm covered by this section.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, saying the case presented a pure question of statutory interpretation and that the statutory text was unambiguous.

Wrongful discharge suit not barred. Both federal courts relied on the language of §45-9-55(5) and Mississippi’s at-will employment doctrine to find that Leaf River was immune from suit. These decisions were reversed by the Fifth Circuit in Swindol v. Aurura Flight Sciences Corp., after the Mississippi Supreme Court held that neither §45-9-55(5) nor Mississippi’s at-will employment doctrine barred suit when an employer terminated an employee for having a firearm in his locked personal vehicle.

Statutory construction. On remand, it was again a matter of statutory construction, said the court. Leaf River argued that its security station, together with signage at the entrances to the parking lot which stated “THIS PARKING AREA IS FOR THE EXCLUSIVE USE OF GP1 EMPLOYEES AND THOSE CONDUCTING BUSINESS WITH GP. WEAPONS OF ANY KIND ARE PROHIBITED, TO INCLUDE THE CARRYING OF A PISTOL OR REVOLVER,” limited or restricted access to the employee parking area to bring it within the protections of the statute.

Security station. Relying on several principles of statutory construction, the court found that for a security station to limit or restrict access to the employee parking area under §45-9-55(2), it must limit or restrict access in a way similar to a gate. This reading was consistent with the legislative history, which noted that the law “allows persons to keep a firearm in their vehicle as long as the parking area is not gated or otherwise restricts [sic] the public’s access.”

Leaf River argued that the security station at the plant, located across a public road from the parking area and approximately 145 feet away from it, satisfied this requirement. But the noscitur a sociis canon of interpretation provides that the term “security station” must get its meaning from the “gate” term it is associated with, which means that the security station must restrict access to the parking area in a way similar to a gate. It was “obvious” to the court that “a security station located across a road and nearly half a football field away from the parking area cannot restrict access in this way.”

Signage. Leaf River also argued that the signs posted at the entrances of the employee lot were sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirements, as it contended the statute did not require a “physical barrier” at the access points of the lot. But the court reasoned that the statutory language and purpose did require restricted or limited access to the lot, similar to that of a gate or of a security station. “Signs restricting access do not do so in a manner consistent with that of a gate or security station,” concluded the court, granting summary judgment on the issue of liability to the employee.

Punitive damages. Arguing that the punitive damages claim should be dismissed because the statutory section at issue had never before been interpreted and two federal courts previously held that there was no damages liability under the statute,” the company tried to at least take punitive damages off the table. But the court cited evidence that Leaf River had been told by the employee before he was fired that it could be in violation of the state statute—in fact, the employee’s supervisor communicated that information to the company’s head of security. A reasonable jury could find that the company acted in “ruthless disregard for” the employee’s rights, the court pointed out, but it also acknowledged the two prior court decisions finding that the company had immunity, which tended to show that the company relied on its immunity from suit in good faith. Because the company had not established that relying on immunity from suit in good faith negates a disregard for the rights of others to defeat punitive damages, the court would allow the employee to try to establish his right to punitive damages at trial.