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Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater

Supreme Court of New Jersey

February 19, 2019

Jennifer Kocanowski, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Township of Bridgewater, Respondent-Respondent.

          Argued January 3, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 452 N.J. Super. 476 (App. Div. 2017).

          Galen W. Booth argued the cause for appellant (Law Offices of Galen W. Booth, attorneys; Galen W. Booth and Peter Ventrice, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Jennifer A. Cottell argued the cause for respondent (Capehart & Scatchard, attorneys; Jennifer A. Cottell, on the briefs, and John H. Geaney, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Jeffrey S. Monaghan argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman, attorneys; Jeffrey S. Monaghan, on the brief).

          Pablo N. Blanco submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae New Jersey Advisory Council on Safety and Health (The Blanco Law Firm, attorneys).

          TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         Jennifer Kocanowski was a volunteer firefighter for seventeen years and was injured in the course of her duties. Kocanowski applied for and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, the Court considers whether volunteer firefighters must be employed to be eligible for temporary disability benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146.

         Kocanowski served fifteen years at the Finderne Fire Department in the Township of Bridgewater. In addition to her volunteer work, Kocanowski usually had outside paid employment, including working as a nanny and home health care aide. Kocanowski took a six-month leave from volunteer firefighting after her father's death to care for her ill mother and settle her father's estate. She returned to volunteer firefighting around July 2014, but did not resume outside employment.

         In March 2015, Kocanowski and other volunteer firefighters from Bridgewater responded to a multi-alarm fire in Franklin Township. While carrying equipment, Kocanowski slipped on ice. She broke the upper shaft of her right fibula, severely damaged her ankle, and tore several ligaments. Her doctors discovered two fractures in her foot, a torn meniscus in her acutely arthritic left knee, damage to the peroneal nerve on her right leg, and impairment to her back -- all sustained as a result of the fall. Kocanowski continues to experience issues with her back, legs, and feet, all of which impede her ability to return to volunteer firefighting and her previous outside employment as a nanny or home health care aide. Kocanowski has also been unable to continue caring for her mother since the accident. Her injuries and the accompanying pain limit her ability to drive more than very short distances. Kocanowski received $125 per week in benefits from the Finderne Fire Department for one year following the accident. She has no other source of income.

         The Division of Workers' Compensation judge heard and denied Kocanowski's application for temporary benefits in March 2016. The judge acknowledged that N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 awards "maximum compensation" to volunteer firefighters injured in the course of their volunteer work but found that temporary disability benefits were intended as a wage-replacement. The judge therefore concluded Kocanowski was not entitled to temporary disability benefits because she had not been employed at the time of her accident.

         Kocanowski appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed the compensation judge's determination that pre-injury outside employment is a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters. 452 N.J.Super. 476, 478, 483 (App. Div. 2017). The Appellate Division ultimately concluded "that although a volunteer firefighter is entitled to temporary benefits at the maximum rate . . . there first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages." Id. at 485.

         The Court granted Kocanowski's petition for certification. 232 N.J. 413 (2018).

         HELD: The Appellate Division's judgment is reversed. While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75's language is unclear, its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act.

         1. The Workers' Compensation Act is remedial legislation and should be given liberal construction in order that its beneficent purposes may be accomplished. Under the Act, volunteer firefighters may recover temporary disability benefits, and their compensation shall "[b]e 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." N.J.S.A. 34:15-75(a). The statute's reference to "based upon a weekly salary or compensation conclusively presumed to be received" is unclear, and so the Court turns to extrinsic evidence of the Legislature's intent, including legislative history. (p. 9)

         2. Workers' compensation was first provided for in New Jersey in 1911. The original Act created a waiting period during which temporary disability benefits were unavailable. In 2001, the waiting period was waived for volunteer firefighters. In 1931, the Legislature created a requirement that "every municipality, and the committee of every fire district . . . provide compensation insurance for volunteer firemen." L. 1931, c. 172, § 1. The statute created certain protections for volunteer firefighters who did not have ordinary wages or salaries or who were unemployed at the time of their injury, allowing unemployed volunteer firefighters to recover based on their most recent previous income. Ibid. The statute was amended in 1952 to its current form. In Cuna v. Board of Fire Commissioners, the Court provided a brief history of measures adopted by the Legislature to encourage the formation and maintenance of volunteer fire companies. 42 N.J. 292, 295-97 (1964). (pp. 10-12)

         3. It would be incongruous and inconsistent, after years of expanding protections and exemptions for volunteer firefighters, 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. The extrinsic evidence and legislative history decidedly indicate the Legislature intended to increase temporary disability coverage for volunteer firefighters injured in the course of performing their duties when it enacted the current form of N.J.S.A. 34:15-75, and not create new barriers to coverage. N.J.S.A. 34:15-75 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. (pp. 12-13)

         4. Defendant urges that language in N.J.S.A. 34:15-38 like "first unable to continue at work" and "able to resume work" demonstrates temporary disability only applies when the claimant was working at the onset of his or her disability. Nothing in either the plain language of the statutes or their legislative histories indicates such an intent. Indeed, N.J.S.A. 34:15-38 existed alongside the pre-1952 version of N.J.S.A. 34:15-75, which 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. To require prior outside employment in order to qualify for N.J.S.A. 34:15-75's presumption of entitlement of the maximum compensation would lead to absurd results. (pp. 13-15)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Division of Workers' Compensation.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE'S opinion.

          OPINION

          TIMPONE, JUSTICE

         Jennifer Kocanowski was a volunteer firefighter for seventeen years and was injured in the course of her duties. Kocanowski applied for and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, we consider whether volunteer firefighters must be employed to be eligible for temporary ...


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