Volunteer Firefighter Injured in Line of Duty? What About Lost Pay?

Posted March 5th, 2019 by .

Categories: Personal Injury.

Volunteer FirefighterAll things considered, Hudson County has very few volunteer firefighters. In the meantime, some communities in neighboring counties like Bergen and Essex depend on volunteers when it comes to putting out infernos and small fires alike. So, what happens when a volunteer firefighter is injured in the line of duty? What about lost pay specifically?

Just because someone gives their time without wages does not mean they aren’t doing a job. In fact, municipalities cover volunteer firefighters under their workers’ compensation insurance plans. Like other city or town employees, this ensures payment of medical bills for work-related injuries.

However, paying for authorized medical care represents just one part of the available benefits. The other two include payment for temporary disability benefits and a possible award for partial permanent disability or even total disability.

As you might guess, temporary disability benefits replace some portion of lost wages while you’re recovering from your injuries. That, in itself, may seem counterintuitive to you. After all, as a volunteer, you are not paid a salary or any kind of stiped. Then again, you may lose time from your regular job.

In the past, municipalities required volunteer firefighters to provide proof that they had paid jobs. This became an issue in a case the New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed in 2017.  The firefighter did not have paid employment but maintained she was still due temporary disability benefits.

The Appellate Division took the side of the employer. Since there were no lost wages to replace, the court felt it would be erroneous to award temporary disability benefits.

At the beginning of this year, the Supreme Court heard this same case. You may be interested in seeing what the state’s top court wrote in Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater.

Volunteer Firefighter Sought Temporary Disability Benefits

First, some brief history concerning the facts of the case. Jennifer Kocanowski volunteer with the Finderne Fire Department in Bridgewater for fifteen years when she was hurt at work. She also had two additional years of firefighting experience.

During most of her tenure with the fire department, Jennifer held different paid jobs. These included work as a nanny and a home health aide.

At some point, Jennifer took a six-month leave of absence from volunteer firefighting to deal with family issues. When she returned in July 2014, she did not have outside employment.

Less than a year later, Jennifer sustained severe injuries while she was part of a response team fighting a multi-alarm fire in a neighboring town.  The Township of Bridgewater acknowledged her accident as compensable and afforded her payment for medical treatment.

In the meantime, Jennifer received just $125 weekly in benefits from the Finderne Fire Department.  However, as noted previously, the Appellate Division agreed with the employer in denying Jennifer temporary disability benefits since she had no wages that required replacement.

Notably, NJSA 34:15-75 addresses compensation for volunteer emergency responders. In short, the law says that such individuals should “receive the maximum compensation” allowable under workers’ compensation laws.

Supreme Court Reverses Appellate Division

Upon review, the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged that the statute regarding compensation for volunteer emergency responders was somewhat unclear. That said, the “legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at… maximum compensation.”

According to the ruling, Jennifer was not only entitled to temporary disability benefits. She should have received them at the maximum rate for the year her accident occurred. The fact that Jennifer did not have outside employment did not disqualify her from payment while she was unable to work.

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Were you hurt on the job? The Law Offices of Anthony Carbone has extensive experience representing injured workers. There is no fee until the end of the case, and the court determines the amount after successful recovery. Give us a call to discuss your claim.

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