Volunteer Firefighter Injured in the Line of Duty Need Not Have Other Employment in Order to Receive Disability Payments

Kocanowski v. Bridgewater Tp., 237 N.J. 3 (2019).  As discussed here, the Appellate Division in this case held that in order for a volunteer firefighter to receive temporary disability payments after being injured in the line of duty, the firefighter needs to have had outside employment at the time of the injury.  Today, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Timpone, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling.

Justice Timpone rightly observed that the case presented a legal issue, which was to be reviewed de novo.  Moreover, because the Workers’ Compensation Act is remedial legislation, it is to be liberally construed.  Finally, where statutory language is ambiguous or unclear, courts may turn to “extrinsic evidence, including legislative history, committee reports, and contemporaneous construction.”

N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 allows volunteer firefighters to recover temporary disability benefits “based upon a weekly salary or compensation conclusively presumed to be received by such person in an amount sufficient to entitle him [or her], or, in the event of his [or her ] death, his [or her] dependents, to receive the maximum compensation by this chapter authorized. . . .”  This language was “unclear.”  Thus, the Court looked to extrinsic evidence, including legislative history.

Justice Timpone recounted the history of the Workers’ Compensation Act and prior caselaw, and noted (among other things) that a pre-1952 version of the statute “allowed volunteer firefighters who were unemployed at the time of their injury to receive benefits” (emphasis by Justice Timpone).  In light of that, and of the fact that protections for volunteer firefighters were expanded over time, Justice Timpone stated that “[i]t would be incongruous and inconsistent … for the Legislature to abruptly limit the class of volunteer firefighters who qualify for temporary disability from any volunteer firefighter who had ever been employed to only volunteer firefighters employed at the time of injury.”  Thus, the statute “authorizes all volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties to receive the maximum compensation permitted, regardless of their outside employment status at the time of injury.”

The Township argued that another statute, N.J.S.A. 34:15-38, “a general, all-purpose statute, not specific to firefighters,” provided the method for calculating disability payments.  That statute refers to “the day that the employee is first unable to continue at work by reason of [an] accident” and “the first working day that the employee is able to resume work,” which the Township contended meant that temporary disability applies only when a firefighter was working when he or she became disabled.

Justice Timpone did not agree.  “N.J.S.A. 34:15-38 existed alongside the pre-1952 version of N.J.S.A. 34:15-75, which as noted earlier allowed volunteer firefighters who were unemployed at the time of their injury to receive benefits.  N.J.S.A. 34:15-38 did not bar benefits then.  There is no reason to think it does now, after the amendment to N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 which loosened restrictions and provided greater protections to volunteer firefighters.”

Besides, the Township’s interpretation would lead to an absurd result.  It “would allow a volunteer firefighter who completes work for a nominal salary, say $5 weekly to deliver newspapers, to automatically receive the maximum compensation authorized while a volunteer firefighter like Kocanowski, who had no outside compensation at the time of her injury, would receive no temporary disability benefits.  Both firefighters take the same risks in their duties for the fire departments.”  it would be “illogical” to give substantial benefits to the volunteer firefighter with the nominal salary, but not to the unemployed volunteer firefighter.