The Cassidy Law Firm Blog

Friday, April 13, 2018

NJ Court to Decide Whether Volunteer Firefighter Can Receive Workers’ Comp

Can I receive workers’ compensation benefits if I am injured while volunteering?

Volunteers change the world with their willingness to donate their time to help others. While many volunteers feel that volunteering has a positive impact on their lives, some volunteer positions come with risks. Those that volunteer in fire departments, rescue agencies, schools, and animal shelters, among other positions, could be injured while helping. Legal questions then arise as to who is liable for the injuries suffered by volunteers. Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court will take on the issue of whether a volunteer firefighter should be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater

In 2015, Jennifer Kocanowski, a long-time volunteer firefighter, slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk while responding to a fire. The accident caused her to need several surgeries to repair the injuries to her leg, foot, and knee. Kocanowski was not employed at the time of the accident Two years prior to the accident, she had worked as a home health aide, and now she found herself unable to return to the position.

Kocanowski applied for workers’ compensation benefits, urging that she should receive benefits because she was injured while on the job as a firefighter. Bridgewater Township, for whom she volunteered, objected, stating that she is not entitled to benefits because she did not suffer loss of salary due to the accident.

The Worker’s Compensation board in New Jersey agreed and rejected the application. She appealed. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Township’s stance and held that well Kocanowski’s volunteering was laudable, she could not receive benefits without lost wages, which could not occur in a volunteer position. She further could not show wages lost outside of her volunteer position. Now, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has agreed to hear Kocanowski’s petition and will decide the important issue as to whether a volunteer can receive worker’s comp benefits if injured while volunteering and not employed in another position.

Traditionally, courts and worker’s compensation divisions in various states have held that workers’ compensation benefits will not apply in the case of volunteer injuries. However, certain volunteers are considered employees for workers’ compensation purposes, including volunteers in state institutions, volunteers in rescue and fire squads, in some states, and school volunteers. Any volunteer injured while volunteering should consult with a workers’ compensation attorney to find out more about their legal rights.

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