Widow Awarded $503K in Contested Oklahoma Workers’ Comp Case

September 2, 2014

The widow and son of a Bartlesville, Okla., man who died during firefighting training have been awarded more than $503,000 in federal and state death benefits despite testimony that said the man was never with a fire department.

Thomas Russell “Rusty” Topping died in 2008 after registering at a state training facility as a volunteer for the Barnsdall fire department. But Barnsdall’s fire chief, Pete O’Dell, testified in workers’ compensation court that Topping wasn’t actually a volunteer, according to the Oklahoman.

“Don’t even know him,” the fire chief said.

The court said Topping, a 28-year-old Bartlesville water department employee, was a firefighter based on a letter of recommendation O’Dell wrote. But O’Dell told the court none of it was true.

O’Dell said a Bartlesville firefighter and friends asked him to write a letter several years ago to help Topping get a job with the Bartlesville Fire Department. O’Dell said he agreed to do it.

“Rusty Topping is a volunteer fireman on our fire dept. for approx. 8 years & 3 months,” O’Dell’s wife wrote in an undated letter with help from her husband. “He has attended all required classes, meetings & work shops. He has the skills to operate 5 ton, 21/2 ton, 3/4 ton & pumper fire trucks. He has completed drivers course & does maintenance on all fire trucks. He works well with other firemen & does more than his share.”

A workers’ compensation judge initially rejected the claim, but a three-judge panel overturned the ruling and awarded the benefits. Two of the judges questioned whether the O’Dells’ actions were fraudulent.

“I’m saying why go to this enormous elaborate scheme, which I would call fraud, to create these documents for a guy they’ve never met?” Judge Eric W. Quandt said. “Why shouldn’t this panel refer the O’Dells to the workers’ compensation fraud unit? Because this is outrageous to me. This isn’t right.”

The judges based their decision on what the O’Dells had written down, as opposed to what they said in court. The Court of Civil Appeals upheld that decision Aug. 14.

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