NJ Volunteer Firefighters Eligible for Workers’ Compensation Disability Benefits Regardless of Employment!
April 17, 2019
By Jennifer Vorih, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently made clear that New Jersey volunteer firefighters who are injured in the line of duty are eligible for the maximum amount of temporary disability benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146, whether or not they have outside employment. Jennifer Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater (A-55-17) (080510).
Jennifer Kocanowski served for seventeen years as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey, and was severely injured while fighting a fire on March 6, 2015. Kocanowski slipped on ice while she was carrying equipment, and suffered two fractures in her foot, a torn meniscus, nerve damages in her right leg, and back pain as a result. She underwent two surgeries, multiple treatments, and intensive physical therapy, but still suffers from the damage to her legs, back, and feet. Due to these issues, Kocanowski has not been able to care for her mother, nor to return to volunteer firefighting or outside employment as a nanny or home health care aide.
For much of the time Kocanowski worked as a volunteer firefighter, she held outside employment, for which she was paid. However, in 2013, Kocanowski left her paid employment to care for her father, who was ill. Both her father and her brother subsequently died, and Kocanowski took a six-month leave from volunteer firefighting in order to settle her father’s estate and provide care for her mother, who was ill. During the period of Kocanowski dealing with all of these family issues, her home health aide license lapsed.
After Kocanowski returned to firefighting and was injured, she applied for temporary disability benefits under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. She was denied benefits by the trial court. She appealed the denial of benefits, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division.
The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the legislative language of the Act was unclear, and for that reason delved into the legislative history of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Court discussed that the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act is “remedial legislation,” and is thus given “liberal construction,” to serve its “beneficent purposes.” In addition, New Jersey has long favored its volunteer firefighters, who serve an important role. For instance, N.J.S.A. 34:15-75, which generally requires that the rate of temporary disability benefits be based on a claimant’s level of compensation at the time of injury, provides that volunteer firefighters should receive the maximum amount allowed, despite their level of income at the time of injury.
In its February 19, 2019, decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the Act, “authorizes all volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties to receive their maximum compensation permitted, regardless of their outside employment status at the time of injury.” After discussing the Act’s provision that volunteer firefighters who did not hold outside employment at the time of injury could recover benefits “based on their most recent previous income,” the Court went even further, holding that the 1952 amendment to the Act, “was intended to grant all volunteer firefighters the maximum compensation allowed, regardless of current or previous income.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court has made clear with this decision that volunteer firefighters are to be allowed special protections and provisions.
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