Unemployed Volunteer Firefighter Entitled to Disability Benefits

In Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, (A-55-17/080510) (Decided February 19, 2019), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the lack of outside employment did not disqualify a volunteer firefighter from receiving disability benefits. According to the court, N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 authorizes all volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties to receive the maximum compensation permitted, regardless of their outside employment status at the time of injury.

New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Act

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-75(a), volunteer firefighters may recover temporary disability benefits. The statute further provides their compensation shall “[b]e based upon a weekly salary or compensation conclusively presumed to be received by such person in an amount sufficient to entitle him [or her], or, in the event of his [or her] death, his[or her] dependents, to receive the maximum compensation by this chapter authorized.”

Facts of Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater

Kocanowski served fifteen years at the Finderne Fire Department in the Township of Bridgewater. In addition to her volunteer work, Kocanowski usually had outside paid employment, including working as a nanny and home health care aide. Kocanowski took a six-month leave from volunteer firefighting after her father’s death to care for her ill mother and settle her father’s estate. She returned to volunteer firefighting around July 2014, but did not resume outside employment.

In March 2015, Kocanowski and other volunteer firefighters from Bridgewater responded to a multi-alarm fire in Franklin Township. While carrying equipment, Kocanowski slipped on ice. She broke the upper shaft of her right fibula, severely damaged her ankle, and tore several ligaments. Her doctors discovered two fractures in her foot, a torn meniscus in her acutely arthritic left knee, damage to the peroneal nerve on her right leg, and impairment to her back, all of which she sustained as a result of the fall.

Kocanowski’s injuries prevented her from returning to volunteer firefighting and her previous outside employment as a nanny or home health care aide. Kocanowski received $125 per week in benefits from the Finderne Fire Department for one year following the accident. She has no other source of income.

A Division of Workers’ Compensation judge heard and denied Kocanowski’s application for temporary benefits in March 2016. The judge acknowledged that N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 awards “maximum compensation” to volunteer firefighters injured in the course of their volunteer work but found that temporary disability benefits were intended as a wage- replacement. The judge therefore concluded Kocanowski was not entitled to temporary disability benefits because she had not been employed at the time of her accident. Kocanowski appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed. It concluded “that although a volunteer firefighter is entitled to temporary benefits at the maximum rate . . . there first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages.”

Court’s Decision in Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s language is unclear, we find its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act,” the court held.

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that the Workers’ Compensation Act is “remedial legislation and should be given liberal construction in order that its beneficent purposes may be accomplished.” It also noted that the statute, when initially enacted, created certain protections for volunteer firefighters who did not have ordinary wages or salaries or who were unemployed at the time of their injury, allowing unemployed volunteer firefighters to recover based on their most recent previous income. The statute was amended in 1952 to its current form.

“The extrinsic evidence and legislative history decidedly indicate the Legislature intended to increase temporary disability coverage for volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties when it enacted the current” statute, Justice Walter Timpone wrote on behalf of the court. He added that the law “authorizes all volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties to receive the maximum compensation permitted, regardless of their outside employment status at the time of injury.”

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