As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, the New Jersey Supreme Court has taken up the issue of whether a volunteer firefighter who was injured while responding to a fire should be awarded workers’ compensation benefits. The firefighter, Jennifer Kocanowski, is seeking to overturn an Appellate Division decision determining that, since she was unemployed at the time of the incident, and since she had no other paying job, she was not entitled to benefits.

In the underlying decision, the Appellate Division wrote that “Kocanowski’s claim is at odds with the underlying reason for awarding temporary disability, which is to replace lost wages.” “Indeed, the case law is clear that when there are no lost wages, the payment of temporary disability is considered a windfall.”

According to court documents, the accident occurred on March 6, 2015. At the time, Kocanowski was a 14-year volunteer with Finderne Fire Engine Company in Bridgewater. Kocanowski, a trained home health aide, had not worked professionally since 2013, when she left her job to take care of her elderly father. While responding to a fire on that date, Kocanowski slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk and broke her right leg. Over the course of the next year, she underwent surgeries to repair damage to her leg, foot and left knee. She never returned to work as a home health aide.

She applied for workers’ compensation benefits, arguing that she was entitled to benefits because she was injured on the job. Bridgewater Township objected to the application, saying that she was not entitled to benefits because she did not suffer any loss in salary. Kocanowski had been asking for about $855 a week in workers’ compensation benefits. The State Division of Workers’ Compensation Benefits agreed with the Township’s position and denied the application for benefits.

Kocanowski appealed and the Appellate Division found that while the workers’ compensation act was meant to be liberally construed, there had to be a loss of wages in order for a worker to be qualified to receive benefits. The Supreme Court granted Kocanowski’s Petition for Certification on March 14, 2018.

The question as to whether volunteer firefighters can receive workers’ compensation benefits is significant. Given that most fire company’s have a volunteer component to its firefighter composition, the Court’s ruling will have an enormous impact as to the protections afforded to volunteers and, thus, the incentive to volunteer going forward.  As such, please continue to check this blog periodically to obtain updates regarding this case and other important issues effecting New Jersey Public Safety Officers.