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Muller v. Island Heights Volunteer Fire Co.

Decided: January 11, 1967.

NORMAN MULLER, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
ISLAND HEIGHTS VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT



Conford, Foley and Leonard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Foley, J.A.D.

Foley

Petitioner, an active volunteer fireman, was granted compensation by the Division of Workmen's Compensation under N.J.S.A. 34:15-43. On appeal de novo the County Court affirmed and respondent appeals.

The essential facts are not in dispute. On the night of October 3, 1962 petitioner, in his capacity of a volunteer fireman, attended a regular monthly meeting of his fire company at the firehouse. In the course of the meeting he participated in a demonstration of the use of gas masks in fire fighting. Another activity in which he took part was the checking of fire trucks and equipment to see that they operated properly. At the meeting he was named "Chairman of the Visitation Committee" whose duties included calling upon ill or injured members of the fire company. Upon learning that a member had been admitted to a local hospital that afternoon, he stated that as soon as he went home he would telephone, find out the visiting hours and call upon the member.

Following the business meeting he and all members present set up tables and chairs for a bingo, which was operated to raise money for "our new firehouse." The work of the evening being concluded the men then went to the kitchen for refreshments. Thereafter, he left the firehouse and was driven to his home by the captain of the department, arriving at about 11 P.M. As he stepped from the automobile in front of his residence he stumbled on the curb and fell, sustaining a ruptured Achilles tendon which required surgical repair.

At the time of the accident the pertinent provisions of N.J.S.A. 34:15-43, supra, were:

"* * * each and every active volunteer fireman doing public fire duty * * * who may be injured in line of duty shall be compensated * * *.

As used in this section, the terms 'doing public fire duty' and 'who may be injured in line of duty,' as applied to active volunteer firemen, * * * shall be deemed to include participation in any authorized public drill, showing, exhibition, or parade of said volunteer firemen * * * either with or without their fire apparatus and to include also the rendering of assistance in case of fire * * * while such assistance

is being rendered and while going to and returning from the place in which it is rendered."

The questions presented are whether upon the facts above stated petitioner was doing public fire duty at the time of the accident and whether he was injured in line of such duty.

The particular problem of statutory construction involved has not previously been resolved by a reported decision in the courts of this State. In approaching it we are mindful of the oft-stated judicial policy of liberality in the construction of the Workmen's Compensation Act in order to accomplish the beneficent purposes of this social legislation. We note also that the legislative history of the Compensation Act, as applied to volunteer firemen, indicates, by continued expansion of the activities for which coverage has been afforded an increasingly liberal attitude on the part of the Legislature. The Legislature has generally reacted to a narrow judicial construction by modifying the statute to spell out the more liberal interpretation. See Cuna v. Bd of Fire Com'rs, Avenel, 42 N.J. 292, 299 (1964). In that case it was also said that the volunteer firemen and rescue workers, who risk life and limb to save others and their property without monetary reward, are entitled to an indulgent application of the law. See also Volek v. Borough of Deal, 83 N.J. Super. 58, 63 (App. Div. 1964).

We have no doubt that all of the activities in which petitioner engaged while at the firehouse were "in line of duty" and thus covered by the Compensation Act. As pointed out in Cuna v. Bd. of Fire Com'rs, Avenel, supra, when the Legislature stated, "[a]s used in this section, the terms 'doing public fire duty' and 'who may be injured in line of duty,' as applied to active volunteer firemen, * * * shall be deemed to include participation * * *, it did not intend to limit the activities to those thereafter enumerated but intended, as the words plainly indicate, to make sure ...


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