In what signals a major victory for volunteer first responders, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that such volunteers injured in the line of duty are entitled to temporary disability benefits regardless of whether they have a paying job at the time of the injury.
Prior to the Court’s decision in Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, New Jersey’s workers’ compensation statute mandated that volunteer first responders receive the maximum weekly compensation rate available to injured members of the workforce. However, volunteers first had to prove that their injury resulted in lost wages from outside employment at the time of the injury.
Jennifer Kocanowski, a volunteer firefighter for the Township of Bridgewater, suffered serious injuries to her right leg and right ankle when she slipped and fell on ice while carrying equipment at the scene of a multi-alarm fire. Ms. Kocanowski had not worked outside of her volunteer duties for the fire department in over a year. She applied for and was denied temporary disability benefits by the workers’ compensation insurance carrier based upon her lack of outside, paid employment at the time of her injury.
She litigated her claim for temporary disability benefits in the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. Both the trial court and appellate court noted that temporary disability benefits were intended to replace lost wages. Thus, both lower courts ruled that Ms. Kocanowski was not entitled to temporary benefits because she had no outside employment and therefore did not suffer any loss of income due her injury.
However, The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state’s workers’ compensation statute afforded all first responders the maximum compensation allowed regardless of whether they had outside employment at the time of injury. The Supreme Court’s decision resulted in Ms. Kocanowski receiving temporary disability benefits at the maximum compensation rate of $855.00 per week until she was medically cleared to return to her firefighting duties.
This decision represents a significant expansion of the protections and benefits afforded first responders in the State of New Jersey. Volunteer first responders risk life and limb each time the call comes for them to act and protect the communities they serve. They perform extremely dangerous work and frequently suffer severe injuries that can render them disabled for extended periods of time. They will now be compensated for that time regardless of their outside employment status.
If you are a volunteer first responder and suffer injuries while performing your duties, you need to know your rights.