NJ Supreme Court: The Term Volunteer Firefighter Is Not Limited to Volunteer Firefighters Who Are Employed

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled today that a state statute providing workers compensation benefits to volunteer firefighters who are injured in the line of duty, includes injured firefighters who are not paid employees.

The ruling reverses an Appellate Division decision that held “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.”

The case involved a Bridgewater Township firefighter, Jennifer Kocanowski, who was injured at a fire in March 2015.  Kocanowski volunteered with the department, but was otherwise unemployed. After being injured at a fire, she applied for workers comp benefits but was denied because she was not employed. As explained by the court:

  • 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 sustained as a result of the fall.
  • Kocanowski continues to experience issues with her back, legs, and feet, all of which impede her ability to return to volunteer firefighting and her previous outside employment as a nanny or home health care aide.
  • The 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 the compensation judge’s determination that pre-injury outside employment is a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters.
  • The Appellate Division ultimately 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.”
  • The Court granted Kocanowski’s petition for certification.
  • The Appellate Division’s judgment is reversed
  • It would be incongruous and inconsistent, after years of expanding protections and exemptions for volunteer firefighters, for the Legislature to abruptly limit the class of volunteer firefighters who qualify for temporary disability from any volunteer firefighter who had ever been employed to only volunteer firefighters employed at the time of injury.
  • 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 form of N.J.S.A. 34:15-75, and not create new barriers to coverage.
  • 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.
  • To require prior outside employment in order to qualify for N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s presumption of entitlement of the maximum compensation would lead to absurd results.

Here is a copy of the decision: Kocanowski v. Twp. of Bridgewater_ 2019 N.J. LEXIS 264

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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