Are Injuries Sustained by a Volunteer Fire Fighter Covered by New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation?
Submitted by New Jersey Workers Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
If you are a volunteer FIRE FIGHTER in New Jersey while currently unemployed, and are injured in your volunteer position you may now be eligible for a temporary disability benefits under New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation statute. If you have any questions about TDB issue please call Hark & Hark at 856-354-0050. We handle TDB and all workers compensation claims all over the state of New Jersey including Atlantic County, Cumberland County, Camden County, Burlington County, Mercer County, Toms River, Freehold, Newark, Ht. Holly, Bridgeton, Mt. Lebanon, Trenton, and all the other comp locations in the state.
In this case the petitioner, Jennifer Kocanowski, was a 15 year veteran volunteer at her local fire department. While on an official fire call while carrying fire equipment she slipped on ice tore several ligaments, fractured her ankle and foot and was out of work for a significant period of time as a volunteer. At the time of her injury she was not employed in any other capacity. The worker’s compensation trial judge turned to NJSA 34: 15–75 which specifically entitles firefighters maximum temporary disability benefits during their period of volunteer fireman related disability. However, the trial judge determined that this petitioner was not entitled to temporary disability benefits because she was not employed at the time of her ‘volunteer injury’ and Worker’s Compensation benefits under the statute were intended as a wage replacement. Another words, if she did not have any wage, there was nothing to replace.
The appellate division affirmed the Worker’s Compensation judge on the same theory; pre-injury outside employment is necessary as a predicate to award a lost wage to a volunteer firefighter.
On February 19, 2019 the New Jersey Supreme Court held that because New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation act is remedial legislation, which should be given liberal construction in order to provide its beneficial purpose, volunteer firefighters are entitled to recover a temporary disability benefits which shall be the maximum temporary rate as authorized by the above referenced volunteer firefighters section of the comp statute. The court essentially turn to: a) the pre-1952 Worker’s Compensation statute which did allow volunteer firefighters who were unemployed to receive benefits and b) because the present legislation is unclear as to whether or not this was going to follow through in the current Worker’s Compensation code by the legislature, the maximum compensation should be allowed under the current Worker’s Compensation statute for those volunteer firefighters who are also currently unemployed. In other words, the present legislation and the legislative history does not reveal a legislative intent to eliminate that specific benefit as part of the revisions to the statute, then the volunteer firefighter who is injured on a fire call who is not otherwise employed, should be entitled to a TDB benefit.
The key to this decision will be whether any other volunteers in any other areas can attempt to collect temporary disability benefits if they are injured in their volunteer capacity. The key limitation of this decision is the New Jersey Supreme Court reference of the prior Worker’s Compensation statute and it application to the very specific statutorily recognized volunteer firefighter exception. Arguably one may could attempt to extend temporary disability benefits to other volunteer circumstances however firefighters do have a specially recognized legislative exemption and a legislative history of special treatment in the Worker’s Compensation code as opposed to other volunteer positions.