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Lauria v. Borough of Ridgefield

Decided: May 16, 1972.


Toscano, J.c.c.


This action is an appeal by the Borough of Ridgefield from that part of a final judgment which, by an order of June 30, 1970, dismissed Ridgefield's petition against the Borough of Cliffside Park.

The two parties in this appeal, the Boroughs of Ridgefield and Cliffside Park, have submitted the following agreed statement of facts to the Division of Compensation:

At 4:00 A.M. on Sunday, October 15, 1967, the Cliffside Park Fire Department, (hereinafter "Cliffside") consisting of paid and volunteer firemen, responded to an alarm regarding a fire at 515 Anderson Avenue, Cliffside Park, the premises of Cardinal Lanes. In the course of fighting the fire, Cliffside summoned other municipalities with whom it is associated in the East Bergen Mutual Aid. The municipalities in the group are: Cliffside Park, Englewood Cliffs, Fairview, Fort Lee, Leonia, Palisades Park, Ridgefield and Box 54 Club "Honorary". The Ridgefield Fire Department (hereinafter "Ridgefield") responded and was assisting in the operation when the north wall collapsed, injuring members of the Ridgefield, Fairview and Cliffside Park Fire Department, and killing five members of the Ridgefield squad, one of whom was petitioner's decedent, James Lauria. At the time of the accident, the Fort Lee Fire Department was also on the scene, with the Fair-view Fire Department arriving later.

The Mutual Aid By-Laws provided, by their terms, that the "Chief or Commanding Officer of town requesting aid is in charge of all towns and coordinators responding to the alarm". In the within matter, Chief John Nagel, a paid fireman of Cliffside Park, was, under the terms of the agreement, in charge of fighting the fire and, in fact, directed and controlled the activities of the Ridgefield Fire Department and others assisting in combating the blaze.

The Mutual Aid By-Laws concerned herein do not provide for re-imbursement by the summoning municipality of any payments made by another municipality to a member of its fire department, or to his widow or other dependent, on account of injuries sustained or death suffered by him in the course of rendering mutual aid in extinguishing a fire in the summoning municipality.

Petitioner filed a claim for compensation against her decedent's employer, the Borough of Ridgefield, and is presently receiving benefits from Ridgefield. Ridgefield filed a claim against Cliffside Park contending

that Cliffside Park is a co-employer of the petitioner's decedent, Mr. Lauria.

After filing the claim against Cliffside Park on April 16, 1968, Ridgefield sought to join the other municipalities that are members of the East Bergen Mutual Aid, and obtained the order of April 7, 1969 to that effect. There followed a rather complex set of procedural steps that culminated in an order of January 30, 1970 dismissing the petitions against Cliffside Park and the other municipalities. At that time Judge Rosenthal found "no basis of liability in this Court as relates to the Borough of Cliffside Park." The order was later reduced to judgment by the order presently under attack, dated June 30, 1970 and signed July 1, 1970 by Judge Rosenthal.

Again, there followed additional procedural measures, resulting in a final judgment against Ridgefield in favor of petitioner's decedent, entered on April 29, 1971. Ridgefield now asks this court to hold that Cliffside Park was either the sole employer or the joint employer of the petitioner's decedent.

There is no statutory provision precisely on point that is dispositive in this case. Both parties to the controversy have engaged in extensive analysis of the pertinent statutory framework in order to determine whether the aiding or the summoning municipality either bears absolute liability or is precluded from liability for the injuries of petitioner's decedent.

It is the position of Ridgefield, the aiding borough, that the statutes are inconclusive on the above issue. As a result, the court should look to common law and decide the instant case on an ad hoc basis, keeping in mind the announced legislative policy to foster mutual aid agreements. Additionally, Ridgefield argues that petitioner's decedent falls within the definition of an "authorized ...

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