No Temporary Disability Payments for Unemployed Volunteer Firefighter

Kocanowski v. Bridgewater Tp., ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2017).  Plaintiff was a volunteer firefighter in Bridgewater.  She slipped on ice while responding to a fire and was injured.  She sought temporary disability and medical benefits under workers’ compensation.  The Township opposed that, arguing that because plaintiff was unemployed (having stopped work to help her ill father), she could not get temporary disability.

The case went to trial, and a judge in the Division of Workers’ Compensation agreed with the Township about the temporary disability but left the medical benefits issue pending.  Plaintiff appealed, and Judge Suter, writing for the Appellate Division, affirmed.

Since the issue was one of law, Judge Suter applied de novo review.  She stated that the Workers Compensation Act, which is liberally construed, affords temporary disability as “a partial substitute for loss of current wages.”  The statute repeatedly refers to “weekly wages,” the ability to “continue at work,” and to “resume work,” which has led courts to say that “an actual absence from work is a prerequisite to a temporary disability award.”

Plaintiff asserted that because the statute made special provisions for volunteer firefighters in certain respects, the usual requirement of lost wages before temporary disability can be paid did not apply to her.  Judge Suter was unpersuaded.  “When the legislature enacted the provisions that addressed firefighters and others,  it did not make any special provisions for calculating temporary disability in a different way.  Indeed, the case law is clear that there are no wages lost, the payment of temporary disability is considered a windfall.”  Judge Suter then canvassed that case law.

Besides the temporary disability issue, there was an appellate practice issue.  Because the medical benefits issue remained unresolved, there was a question as to whether the matter was immediately appealable.  In a footnote, Judge Suter resolved the question in favor of immediate appealability, citing two prior Appellate Division cases.  But she also noted an older, contrary opinion, Andersen v. Well-Built Homes of Cent. Jersey, Inc., 69 N.J. Super. 246, 254 (App. Div. 1961).  At some point, those conflicting decisions may have to be reconciled.

 

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