TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – A firefighter who broke her leg slipping on ice while responding to a blaze fought for benefits Thursday at the New Jersey Supreme Court, denying that volunteer status should disqualify her from workers’ compensation.
A former nanny and certified home health aide, Jennifer Kocanowski had been volunteering with the Finderne Fire Engine Company in Bridgewater Township for 14 years but was otherwise unemployed when she got hurt in March 2015.
Indeed Kocanowski had stopped working in October 2013 to help her ailing father, and the township rejected her ensuing claim on this basis, saying she was not entitled to temporary disability payments since she was not employed at the time of the accident.
A workers’ compensation judge ruled against Kocanowski as well by 2016, and the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court followed suit the following year.
Pushing Thursday for a reversal before the New Jersey Supreme Court, attorney Galen Booth called it unfair to deny that Kocanowski was working at the time of her injury.
Kocanowski may not have been earning a salary, but Booth said “she was just working without a paycheck for her township and that work has a value.”
After breaking her fibula, Kocanowski had filed for the maximum rate of compensation: $855 per week at the time.
Booth said volunteer firefighters automatically qualify under state law for this rate, calling it a “quid pro quo to reward the volunteer for the giving of volunteer’s time and the risks.”
Noting that the losses attributable to his client’s “injuries in the line of duty” continue to mount, the lawyer said the 48-year-old Kocoanowski has not held down sustainable income for 35 months. Reliant on welfare and food stamps, her car was repossessed twice.
“Her body is broken and her bank account is broken,” Booth said,
But Associate Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina questioned Booth about whether his argument about automatic benefits entitlement “unduly punishes those are actually working.”
In his closing remarks, Booth warned that denying the requested benefits could have a chilling effect on the public service provided volunteer firefighters.
“To deprive her of temporary disability benefits after she has put in all that work after 15 years … is a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “If this ruling stands, any firefighter who is unemployed has to think twice before answering a fire call.”
Bridgewater Township’s counsel Jennifer Cottell from Cooper, Cottell & Taylor LLC meanwhile urged the court to affirm.
“Ms. Kocanowski was not unable to return to work because of the injury, she was unable to return to work because she had no job to go to,” Cottell remarked.
Though she conceded that Kocanowski is likely eligible for medical benefits and permanent disability, he called temporary disability benefits inappropriate because she has no wages to replace.
“The fact that she did not have a job at the moment she was injured is not our fault honestly,” Cottell concluded.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the rest of the court took the case under advisement after 90 minutes of oral arguments.