Cruise-ship conman walks plank

By James Quiggle
January 24, 2006
Brian Calen claimed he lost the same right eye on three different luxury cruises, collecting a small fortune in insurance money before investigators, ahem, saw through his charade.

The New York day-trader really lost the sight in his right eye 20 years ago. Calen was looking through a telescope on a cruise when the solar filter apparently fell off and the sunlight blinded him.

But since then, he turned blindness into his own little cottage industry, bilking insurers out of nearly $1.1 million.

Calen kept taking cruises, and kept claiming an unfortunate accident onboard had tragically cost him that darned right eye.

Didn’t need exam

He cleverly exploited a loophole in the travel policies. He simply bought coverage that didn’t require a physical exam to check for pre-existing conditions. Sometimes, he got the insurance simply by charging his vacation on a credit card.

Calen recycled the old telescope story on another cruise in 1992. It worked, and he collected $75,000.

He used a grisly twist to land a $1-million insurance payout several years later. Calen broke a champagne bottle and stuck glass shards into his right eye socket, prosecutors say. Then he said that the bottle had exploded, blinding him.

Calen tried again in 2002. He took a Civil War-themed cruise on a Mississippi riverboat. Wouldn’t you know it? A plastic flying disc whacked him in the right eye. And yep, it blinded him, he claimed.
This time, he tried to collect $500,000.

Evidence overwhelming

But an alert investigator for National Union Fire Insurance Co. spotted Calen’s grisly scam. He recalled the $1-million payout from the champagne-bottle claim, and turned Calen in to New York’s fraud bureau.

Prosecutors blindsided Calen with a fraud indictment for the last claim. The evidence was overwhelming.

“How does a guy get blinded again and again?” District Attorney Jeanine Pirro wondered to reporters.

Calen’s dirty cruise claim sank fast.

He pleaded guilty to the last con; the statute of limitations had expired on the others.

Calen could’ve gotten up to 15 years in prison, but begged for mercy. He’s a stay-at-home dad whose kids depend on him, he told the court. He also knew his scam was wrong, he claimed.

Sentence too light?

“I am remorseful,” he told the judge.

Apparently the court agreed. Calen received five years of probation instead of hard time, including three weekends in jail. That’s the same number of weekends as Calen’s phony blindness claims. He also must repay National Union for the cost of its investigation.

Did Calen get off too easily?

Only he knows if a criminal record, pile of legal bills and exposure in the media as a national laughingstock were worth it.

But with a guilty plea on the books, this is one cruise con that walked the plank.

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