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Court reverses volunteer firefighter’s benefits rejection

February 19, 2019

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A longtime volunteer firefighter shouldn’t have been denied disability benefits because she didn’t have outside employment at the time of her injury, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Jennifer Kocanowski had appealed the rulings of two lower courts that had held the disability benefits she sought were meant as a wage replacement.

Kocanowski was a volunteer firefighter in the Finderne section of Bridgewater Township for 15 years and was injured in 2015 when she slipped on ice while carrying gear. She broke her right leg and suffered other injuries to her feet, ankle and back.

Kocanowski had worked previously as a nanny and home health aide. She took a six-month leave from firefighting in 2014 to care for her ill mother and settle her father’s estate and didn’t have outside employment when she returned to the fire department, according to Tuesday’s ruling.

She applied for temporary benefits, but a judge agreed with defendant Bridgewater Township that outside employment is required under state law, in order to calculate benefits. An appeals court upheld the ruling.

In Tuesday’s unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court cited state worker compensation laws dating back to the early 20th century that have gradually expanded the benefits available to volunteer firefighters.

Requiring outside employment to be eligible “would lead to absurd results,” Justice Walter Timpone wrote, such as a firefighter who earned $5 per week delivering newspapers qualifying to receive the maximum compensation while Kocanowski would receive no temporary disability benefits.

“Both firefighters take the same risks in their duties for the fire departments,” Timpone wrote.

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