Investigator kills himself during investigation into his mishandling of evidence – should the death be compensable?

Forensic Investigator Gary Veeder specialized in trace fiber evidence for the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center. His findings were relied upon by prosecutors and juries in sending people to jail. Unfortunately, a state investigation found that in nearly 1/3rd of all the cases Veeder worked on there were “serious problems” with the evidence provided by Veeder.

A very public scandal erupted following an investigation (“Troopergate” and “Dirty Tricks Scandal”) when it was learned that Veeder

“routinely failed to conduct a required test when examining fiber evidence, then falsely indicated in case records that he had performed the test,”

according to the audit of his practices. It appears that Veeder had no knowledge of the tests he was supposed to be conducting, and could not even properly operate a microscope.

A lot of people may have gone to jail because of Veeder’s fake evidence.

Veeder first retired and then 15 days later committed suicide by hanging himself in his garage.

His widow claimed that his death was caused by work-related stress and filed for workers’ compensation benefits.

Dependency Benefits in New York

Under the New York Workers’ Compensation Law, if a worker dies from a compensable injury, the surviving spouse would be entitled to weekly cash benefits. The amount is equal to two-thirds of the deceased worker’s average weekly wage for the year before the accident. The weekly compensation may not exceed the weekly maximum, despite the number of dependents.

Suicide

Intentional self-injury is not compensable under the New York Workers’ Compensation law. Self-injury or stress related to a negative personnel action (discipline, termination, etc.) is not compensable. However, a line of cases has developed since 1991 finding some suicides compensable. For example, a suicide may be found compensable where:

  • There was a work-related injury which caused insanity, derangement, or mental deterioration;
  • A depressive condition causally related to the employment (presume causal connection between work and mental illness);
  • Work-related stress contributed to a depressive illness (which may have been pre-existent in nature and in which suicidal tendencies were a feature).

See Miller v. Int’l Bro. Of Elec. Workers Local 631, 654 N.Y.S.2d 460 (3d Dep’t 1997).

The widow’s claim was denied, on the basis that the stress was the result of personnel actions, which are excluded from workers’ compensation eligibility.

The case was appealed and the decision to deny benefits was reversed and the case sent back to the Workers’ Compensation Board for reconsideration.

Decision on appeal

The reversal was based upon the fact that at the time of Veeder’s suicide, no personnel actions had been implemented. The Appellate court stated that “the unrefuted psychiatric evidence contained in the record, as well as the suicide letters, make clear that decedent’s suicide was predominantly the product of the depression and stress he experienced from the employer’s inquiry into the inconsistencies in his fiber analysis tests.” The state was investigating the situation; they had uncovered problems in Veeder’s work, but they were on a narrowly defined “fact finding” mission. No action had been taken against Veeder: he was not suspended or demoted or disciplined in any manner. Thus the stress was purely the result of the investigation, not of any personnel action.

In other words, had the employer simply announced to Veeder that the investigation was the initial phase of a disciplinary process, he would probably not have been eligible for workers comp. The only facts that count: he was under enormous work-related stress (of his own making) and he killed himself as a direct result of the work-related situation.

Based on the decision in the appeal, it appears that Veeder’s widow will be eligible for burial and indemnity benefits.

Case: Veeder v. New York State Police, 511128 (N.Y. App. Div decided July 14, 2011).

Greg Lois is the managing partner of LOIS LLC and dedicates his practice to defending employers and carriers in New York and New Jersey workers' compensation claims. Greg is the author of a popular series of "Handbooks" on workers' compensation, and is the co-author of the 2016 & 2017 Lexis-Nexis New Jersey Workers' Compensation Practice Guide. Greg can be reached at 201-880-7213 or glois@loisllc.com