Appeals court tosses workers' comp verdict

Adam Lynn

Staff writer

From the start, Christopher Robin Briejer  maintained he did nothing wrong when he took workers' compensation checks from the state even while he was fit enough to climb Mount Rainier.

    Briejer, 44, stood by his innocence after he was charged with 57 counts of theft for taking what the state said was more than $360,000 in fraudulent benefits from the Department of Labor and Industries.

    He stood by it through his trial, through his conviction on 56 of the original counts and through a two-year prison term.

    Now, the state Court of Appeals has validated his steadfastness.

    In a 3-0 ruling released last week, a panel from Division II said the state Attorney General's Office did not have enough evidence to convict Briejer, and that a Pierce County Superior Court judge admitted improper evidence about his participation in extreme sports that violated Briejer's right to a fair trial.

    The panel threw out his convictions and ruled prosecutors could not refile the charges against him.

    "Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the state, its evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Briejer knowingly deceived L&I," Justice Marywave Van Deren wrote for the majority.

    Attempts to reach Briejer on Thursday were unsuccessful.

    The victory was a bit hollow for Briejer, who'd already served his sentence by the time the ruling came out. He was released from prison in November after serving two years.

    "It's a bummer," said his appellant attorney, Lance Hester.

    But there is a silver lining for Briejer: He should not have to repay the $364,000 in restitution awarded to the state by Judge Frederick Fleming.

    "The restitution in this case was gigantic," Hester said. "That was the big one."

    The Attorney General's Office charged Briejer with multiple counts of first-degree theft in 2009 after an L&I investigation.

    Briejer, a carpenter before being hurt, first filed for workers' compensation after an on-the-job back injury in 2000. The state approved his claim and paid out benefits for about five months, court records show.

    Four years later, he asked L&I to reopen his claim, saying his injury had worsened over time. The state, after sending him to the doctor for examination, reopened his original claim and began to pay him time-loss benefits again.

Those payments continued until 2008, when someone called in a tip to the state's fraud hot line. The caller directed state officials to a YouTube video that showed Briejer climbing Mount Rainier.

State investigators began looking into Briejer's 2004 claim and lifestyle. They discovered he'd suffered other injuries since 2000, including an ankle injury in 2003 from falling off a ladder while self-employed.

They immediately stopped his workers' compensation payments and forwarded the case to the Attorney General's Office for prosecution.

Charging documents alleged Briejer lied to L&I officials by not disclosing the injuries he suffered after his 2000 back injury and how he sustained them. State officials said they would not have reopened his original claim had they known.

The appellate panel found those contentions untrue.

Briejer wrote about his ankle injury on a state form when he filed for the reopening of his 2000 claim, court records show.

"Despite the state's proffered evidence of deception, L&I's records show indisputably that Briejer repeatedly referred to his ankle injury, that his medical records clearly showed the severity of his ankle injury and that it was not immediately obvious to a medical specialist that his ankle injury caused the recurrence of back pain," Van Deren wrote in her opinion.

"Briejer fulfilled his duty to inform the state of his intervening injury and he was not required to under the medical connection between his ankle injury and back pain."

The appellate panel went on to say Fleming erred and contributed to Briejer's convictions by allowing in evidence of Briejer's mountain climbing and participation in other sports. That evidence had nothing to do with the charges filed against Briejer and unfairly made him look like a liar, the panel ruled.

Briejer told The News Tribune in 2009 that he climbed Mount Rainier in 2008 to keep himself in good physical condition.

"It doesn't take a back to climb a mountain. It takes legs," he said. "Even though I'm injured, I take care of my body. My doctors are 100 percent in favor of me hiking."