The New Jersey Supreme Court has rendered a decision that has a significant positive impact on volunteer firefighters who are injured during the course of performing their duties. It was previously unsettled whether a volunteer, with no other paid employment, could receive temporary disability payments under the Workers Compensation statute. N.J.S.A. 34:15-1, et seq.
In Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, the plaintiff was a volunteer firefighter who was injured while responding to a multi-alarm fire. During the course of her services, she suffered a broken fibula, fractures in her foot, a torn meniscus, damage to the peroneal nerve, and back injuries. The plaintiff continued to experience physical limitations which impeded her ability to return to firefighting, or return to work with her prior employer, which she had taken leave from to care for her ailing mother.
The lower courts recognized that volunteer firefighters were statutorily entitled to the maximum compensation when injured during their volunteer duties, but ruled that a volunteer firefighter must have been employed at the time the injuries were sustained in order to receive temporary disability benefits because the benefit serves as a wage replacement for the injured person. Thus, if the volunteer had no income, the benefit should not be available to the claimant.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the legislative history of the Workers Compensation statute provided strong evidence that the intention was to provide volunteer firefighters with maximum benefits, including temporary disability compensation, regardless of their employment status at the time of injury. The Court specifically referenced the fact that the benefits volunteer firefighters receive under the Workers Compensation Act had been expanding for many years. As a result, the Court declared it was clear that temporary disability benefits provided to volunteers should not be limited to only those gainfully employed at the time of injury.
There is no doubt that New Jersey's brave volunteers provide vital services and often risk their lives to help their fellow citizens. The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision recognizes the crucial role first responders of all stripes play in our daily lives by solidifying the fact that these selfless individuals are entitled to all aspects of workers compensation benefits when they are injured. If you are injured during the course of your employment, the attorneys at Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis & Cohen can assist you and ensure that you receive each and every benefit to which you are entitled under New Jersey's Workers Compensation statute. Please do not hesitate to contact the firm if you have any questions related to a workplace injury.