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How 7 Minutes Could Cost a Trooper’s Widow Millions

Sun 27 April 2014 News Releases

By Susan Edelman | New York Post

On Dec. 7, 2009, New York State Police narcotics investigator Richard O’Brien fell off a ladder while fixing his mother’s roof.

He lived for only three more hours after the fall — but in that brief time, fellow troopers tried to have him retired on disability.

Now, Stephanie O’Brien, his widow, is fighting in court, saying a faulty fax machine and a measly seven minutes mean she and the couple’s daughter would get a $342,000 death payout — rather than lifetime benefits that could total in the millions.

The case is the first involving an officer filing for a disability retirement on the day of his death, lawyers said.

Fellow troopers rushed to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, where O’Brien, 42, lay mortally injured and unconscious following his off-duty repair accident at 3:34 p.m. They immediately asked State Police Headquarters in Albany to send retirement forms — though it took the ER’s faulty fax machine several tries to receive them, causing the first in a series of delays.

The troopers helped O’Brien’s wife fill them out.

“I was in the shock of my life,” she told The Post. Married five months earlier, the couple was expecting. “I remember signing the document, I remember being advised, but I don’t remember the details.”

The form she signed checked off a payment option in which Richard would get 75 percent of his $90,000 salary for life. If he died, his beneficiary, Stephanie, would receive the same $67,500-a-year for life.

It then took 10 tries — an 18-minute delay — to fax the papers back to a State Police supervisor, who finally received them at 6:19 p.m.

The supervisor took 11 minutes to review the application and formally file it by fax to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli at 6:31 p.m.

Meanwhile, O’Brien had died at 6:24 p.m.

At that point, the 14-year police veteran became ineligible for retirement. The state Comptroller’s Office offered Stephanie a death benefit — three times O’Brien’s last 12 months of pay. But the disability benefits could have amounted to much more — $3.3 million if Stephanie, now 36, lives to age 86.

Dick Dadey, of the civic watchdog group Citizens Union, called the troopers’ actions “understandable but unseemly.”

“He was gravely injured, his death imminent, and they jumped through hoops to bring about his retirement to extend this benefit. Retirement is a planned event, not a technical act made on someone’s behalf while dying,” Dadey said.

Stephanie, a special-ed teacher, gave birth to a daughter, Abigail, six months after O’Brien’s death. She appealed the decision by the state Comptroller’s Office, but a panel of judges this month voted 3-1 to uphold it.

Stephanie’s lawyer, Alan Sash — whose firm, McLaughlin & Stern, took the case pro bono — denied any effort to “game the system.”

“This was the benefit of his bargain to risk his life every day as a State Police officer,” Sash said of O’Brien, who also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is asking the state Court of Appeals to review the case.