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Volunteer firefighter’s unemployment no bar to disability benefits


A volunteer firefighter does not need to have outside employment to qualify for disability compensation, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held Tuesday.

The state’s high court in a unanimous opinion reversed an appeals court decision holding that the firefighter was precluded from receiving temporary disability benefits because she was unemployed at the time of her injury.

In Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, Jennifer Kocanowski worked as a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, serving 15 of those years at the Finderne Fire Department in the Township of Bridgewater, New Jersey. She also usually had outside paid employment as a home health aide or nanny.

In October 2013, she quit her job to care for her dying father and took a six-month leave of absence from volunteer firefighting to care for her mother and settle her father’s estate. She returned to the fire department in July 2014 but did not resume outside employment.

On March 6, 2015, she slipped on ice while carrying equipment at a multialarm fire, breaking her right calf bone, tearing several ligaments and damaging her ankle. She underwent several surgeries and intensive physical therapy but said she continued to experience issues that impeded her ability to return to volunteer firefighting or her previous work. She received $125 per week in benefits from the fire department for one year after the accident and has no other sources of income.

On Dec. 14, 2015, she filed for temporary medical benefits. A New Jersey Division of Workers Compensation judge denied her petition, noting that the state awards “maximum compensation” to volunteer firefighters injured in the course of their volunteer work, but said the temporary disability benefits were intended as wage replacement, and because she had not been employed at the time of her accident, she was not entitled to those benefits.

Ms. Kocanowski appealed, but the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed the decision, holding that pre-injury outside employment was “a necessary predicate” to awarding temporary disability benefits to a volunteer firefighter.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the decision, holding that the legislature intended to increase temporary disability coverage for volunteer firefighters injured in the course of their duties, “not create barriers to coverage.” The court found that the statute authorized all volunteer firefighters to “receive the maximum compensation permitted, regardless of their outside employment status at the time of the injury.”

The court further said it was “illogical” that a former firefighter with a job would receive $855 weekly in benefits based on the maximum available at the time Ms. Kocanowski was injured, while one who was unemployed would receive nothing.

Galen Booth, the attorney for Ms. Kocanowski, said that many New Jersey municipalities cannot afford a staff of paid firefighters.

“Our legislature wants to encourage the volunteerism and protect the volunteers because of their importance and the risks that they subject themselves to as volunteers,” said Mr. Booth of the Law Offices of Galen W. Booth in Middlesex, New Jersey. “In this case, my client will go back to comp court and now get the 35 months of benefits that they withheld from her and put her into financial ruin.”

The Township of Bridgewater declined to comment on the case.




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