NJ Supreme Court Says Unemployed Volunteer Firefighter Deserves Temporary Disability Benefits

Reverses Lower Court That Disallowed TD Benefits Since Firefighter Had No Lost Wages

Earlier today, reversing a late 2017 decision of the state’s Appellate Division [see my earlier discussion of that case here], the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a volunteer firefighter, injured while performing her duties, may receive temporary disability benefits under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”), in spite of the fact that the firefighter was unemployed at the time of the volunteer-related injury and thus had no lost wages [Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, (A-55-17) (808510) (N.J., Feb. 19, 2019)]. The Court noted the language of the operative statute—N.J.S.A. 34:15-75—was unclear, but stressed the statute’s legislative history indicated a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act.

Background

Kocanowski, who had been a volunteer firefighter for 14 years, stopped working to help her ailing father. Following her father’s death, Kocanowski did not seek work, although in the past she had worked as a nanny and as a certified health aide. She returned to volunteer firefighting in July 2014, suffering injury on March 6, 2015.

In March 2016, the Division of Workers’ Compensation judge heard and denied Kocanowski’s application for temporary benefits. 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. Since Kocanowski had no wages to replace, she was not entitled to temporary disability benefits.

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. The Appellate Division said that payment depended on proof of lost wages.

Supreme Court Disagrees

Noting the strong remedial nature of the Act and the rule that liberal construction was in order to effect the beneficent purposes of the Act, the high court said:

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 [Opinion, p. 12].

The Court noted that the pre-1952 version of the statute had clearly allowed volunteer firefighters who were unemployed at the time of their injury to receive benefits. The Court added that the extrinsic evidence and legislative history decided indicated the Legislature intended over the years to increase temporary disability coverage for volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties, not to reduce them.

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, concluded the Court. According to the Court, the Township’s interpretation of the statute would allow someone with nominal pay, say $5 weekly delivering newspapers, to receive the maximum compensation authorized ($855 weekly), while Kocanowski, who had no outside compensation at the time of her injury, would receive no temporary disability benefits at all.

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