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UPDATE - NJ Supreme Court issues ruling involving volunteer firefighter

On February 19, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued their decision in the appeal entitled Jennifer Kocanowski v. the Township of Bridgewater, which concerned the issue of whether a volunteer firewoman injured in the course of her service as a volunteer firefighter for Bridgewater Township was entitled to a benefit called temporary compensation.

Temporary compensation is a wage replacement benefit paid to an injured worker who has sustained a work-related accident that prevents them from doing their normal job duties for a period while they are receiving authorized medical treatment for the injuries sustained in the accident.  Normally, under our workers’ compensation laws, in order to be entitled to a payment of temporary compensation benefits, the injured worker must be employed in a full time or part time position for which they are unable to work while getting the necessary medical treatment from the injury.

At the time that Ms. Kocanowski sustained a serious work-related injury while serving as a volunteer for Bridgewater Township, she was not employed on either a full time or part time basis.  Therefore, the workers’ compensation insurance carrier for Bridgewater Township refused to pay her lost time payments while she was undergoing significant medical treatment as a result of the injury she sustained in the course of her service as a volunteer firewoman.

After an initial trial on this issue, the Workers’ Compensation Trial Judge denied Ms. Kochanowski’s entitlement to the wage loss benefit because she was not employed on either a full time or part time basis.    

An appeal was taken to the New Jersey Appellate Division and the Appellate Division affirmed the Trial Court’s decision denying her temporary compensation benefits.    

Ms. Kocanowski’s attorney then made an application to the New Jersey Supreme Court asking the court to hear the issue of whether a volunteer injured in the course of their employment would be entitled to temporary compensation benefits even if they were not employed on a full or part time basis.  agreed to hear this issue. 

Jeffrey Monaghan, a partner in the Law Firm of Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman, and a member of the Board of Governors of the New Jersey Association of Justice, a Trial Lawyers Organization dedicated to protecting New Jersey families by working to preserve and strengthen the laws for safer products and safer work places participated in this appeal before the New Jersey Supreme Court in the capacity of an amicus counsel.

Mr. Monaghan prepared a brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court and participated in the argument held before the Supreme Court on January 3, 2019.

We are very pleased to report that the Supreme Court issued a unanimous 7-0 decision on February 19, 2019, overturning the decision of the Trial Court affirmed by the New Jersey Appellate Court and finding that Ms. Kocanowski was in fact entitled to temporary compensation benefits for the period of time that she was under authorized medical treatment for the injuries she sustained while acting as a volunteer for the Bridgewater Township volunteer fire department. 

In their decision, the Supreme Court held that volunteer firefighters have long played a very important role in the various municipalities and townships in New Jersey.  The Legislature has long sought to encourage that role by providing certain protections and exemptions for volunteer firefighters.  The Supreme Court held that under New Jersey Statute annotated 34:15-75, all volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties should receive the maximum compensation permitted under the statutes, including a payment of temporary compensation benefits, regardless of whether the volunteer had full or part time employment separate and apart from their service as a volunteer firefighter when their injury occurred.  

The effects of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in this case should provide that in the future an individual serving their municipality or township in the capacity of some type of volunteer service who unfortunately sustain an injury in the course of their volunteer service will be entitled to the maximum temporary compensation benefit rate set forth each year by the New Jersey Department of Labor and their entitlement to that benefit should not depend on whether they are actually engaged in full or part time employment when they met with their accident while serving in a volunteer capacity.

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