State of Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, John A. Mastropietro, Chairman
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Evanuska & Williams v. City of Danbury

CASE NO. 4900 CRB-7-04-12

CASE NO. 4903 CRB-7-04-12

COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION

DECEMBER 19, 2005

DOUGLAS EVANUSKA

PAUL WILLIAMS

CLAIMANTS-APPELLANTS

v.

CITY OF DANBURY

EMPLOYER

and

CIRMA

INSURER

RESPONDENTS-APPELLEES

APPEARANCES:

The claimants were represented by Jonathan Dodd, Esq., Dodd, Lessack, Ranando & Dalton, L.L.C., Westgate Office Center, 700 West Johnson Avenue, Suite 305, Cheshire, CT 06410.

The respondents were represented by Colette Gladstone, Esq., Howd & Ludorf, 65 Wethersfield Avenue, Hartford, CT 06114-1190.

These Petitions for Review from the December 8, 2004 Finding and Dismissal of Commissioner acting for the Seventh District were heard July 15, 2005 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting the Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro and Commissioners Stephen B. Delaney and Michelle D. Truglia.

OPINION

JOHN A. MASTROPIETRO, CHAIRMAN. The claimants, Douglas Evanuska and Paul Williams, have petitioned for review from the December 8, 2004 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Seventh District. The trier dismissed both of their claims for compensation in that decision, and each contends on appeal that said ruling was based on an erroneous construction of § 7-314 and § 7-314a C.G.S. We find no error on appeal, and affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

The trial commissioner issued a single decision in which he found the following relevant facts. The claimants were active volunteer firefighters for the Germantown Hose Company in Danbury on October 19, 2002. The Hose Company is housed in a building with a roof façade that, on the date in question, needed to have some wooden shingles replaced. At the October 2002 regular monthly meeting of the Hose Company’s Board of Managers (which handles the company’s administrative and business functions only), a “work party” had been put together to accomplish that project. No one was ordered to participate, and the claimants each agreed to donate their time. James LaClair, the Vice Chairman of the Board of Managers, testified that active members were obligated to attend these work parties unless prevented from doing so by one’s primary job or family obligations, and the membership application for the Hose Company listed these duties as part of the expected set of obligations for volunteer firefighters. Failure to attend “work parties” could result in disciplinary action.

The claimants were on a scaffold performing the repairs on October 19, 2002, when the scaffold collapsed, causing each man to fall about 15 feet to the ground and to suffer serious injuries that demanded medical treatment and hospitalization. At the time, they were working under the direction of Karl Leach, the Hose Company’s chief, despite the fact that each volunteer had expertise in construction or a related field. LaClair testified that this was done in order to “reinforce the chain of command in place when fighting fires.” Findings, ¶ 13, citing October 7, 2003 Transcript, pp. 30-31. Notwithstanding these facts, the trial commissioner did not find the claimants’ injuries to be compensable under § 7-314a, which states that volunteer firefighters shall be construed to be employees of the municipality “while in training or engaged in volunteer fire duty.” The trier reasoned that the definition of “fire duties” in § 7-314 did not encompass the fixing of a firehouse roof, even though the statute lists a set of covered duties and then includes the catch-all “any other duty ordered to be performed by a superior or commanding officer in the fire department.” The trier did not find the directions given by Karl Leach to be anything more than a foreman would do at an ordinary construction job, and was not persuaded that a work party is intended to enforce the chain of command and to train members to respond to orders. Accordingly, he dismissed the claimants’ claims, which has resulted in this appeal.

Section 7-314a(a) states that active members of volunteer fire departments “shall be construed to be employees of the municipality for the benefit of which volunteer fire services . . . are rendered while in training or engaged in volunteer fire duty . . . and shall be subject to the jurisdiction of the Workers’ Compensation Commission and shall be compensated in accordance with the provisions of chapter 568 for death, disability or injury incurred while in training for or engaged in volunteer fire duty . . . .” (Emphasis added.) “Fire duties,” in turn, are defined by § 7-314(a) as “duties performed while at fires, while answering alarms of fire, while answering calls for mutual aid assistance, while returning from calls for mutual aid assistance, while directly returning from fires, while at fire drills or parades, while going directly to or returning directly from fire drills or parades, while at tests or trials of any apparatus or equipment normally used by the fire department, while going directly to or returning directly from such tests or trials, while instructing or being instructed in fire duties, while answering or returning from ambulance calls where the ambulance service is part of the fire service, while answering or returning from fire department emergency calls and any other duty ordered to be performed by a superior or commanding officer in the fire department.” (Emphasis added.) Here on appeal, the claimants argue that the plain meaning of the phrase “any other duty ordered to be performed by a superior or commanding officer in the fire department” manifestly includes the duty of fixing the firehouse façade that they were required to perform as part of their volunteer firefighting duties. See § 1-2z C.G.S.1

The trial commissioner specifically found that none of the volunteer firefighters were ordered to participate in the repair of the firehouse roof. “No member of the work party was ever ordered to be at the work site. It was truly a noble gesture on the part of all who participated in the volunteer effort, but it was voluntary.” Findings, ¶ E. The evidence supports this finding. We acknowledge that the membership form for Germantown Volunteer Hose Co. #10 states that volunteer firefighters are expected to “participate in company functions such as work nights, company fund raisers, and attend wakes of deceased members of the company or their immediate families,” and LaClair testified that available personnel are expected to attend “work details” when available to do so. Transcript, pp. 25-27. Indeed, the membership of a volunteer might be re-evaluated if said person continued to miss work parties. Transcript, pp. 27-28. Nevertheless, this expectation of attendance for work detail is not tantamount to making such activities required fire duties that fall under the supervision of a commanding officer within the meaning of § 7-314(a). Claimant’s Exhibit A.

It is important to distinguish the status of being a volunteer firefighter from the scope of coverage under § 7-314a. Being part of a volunteer firefighting company is not the equivalent of being an employee under the Workers’ Compensation Act; instead, said volunteers are brought within the scope of the Act when they are performing, or training to perform, fire duties. Had the legislature intended differently, it could have simply declared that all volunteer firefighters be deemed municipal employees for the purpose of chapter 568 for any injury arising out of and in the course of their volunteer duties, without specifically designating that those duties be “fire duties.” The legislature instead chose to use language that focused a volunteer firefighter’s period of coverage on the nature of the duties being performed. It is our obligation to recognize that distinction.

We can readily distinguish our recent decision in Rothholz v. Chesterfield Fire Company, Inc., 4827 CRB-2-04-7 (August 12, 2005), from the case at bar. There, we held that a claimant who was acting as president of the volunteer fire company suffered a compensable injury while moving a file cabinet in the company’s office. As president of the fire company, it was the claimant’s job to handle administrative matters such as company finances and paperwork, which were themselves necessary to keep the fire company in operation. Realistically, one would not expect these office duties to be outsourced. In contrast, it was beyond the job of the claimants here to perform structural repairs at the firehouse as part of their firefighting duties. (See Transcript, p. 20.) In fact, Karl Leach testified in his deposition that the general membership of the fire department had considered hiring an outside contractor to perform the repair work, but the members of the company decided that they could handle it themselves. Respondent’s Exhibit 1, p. 21. We recognize the difficulty that volunteer organizations often have gathering funding. Nevertheless, in an ideal circumstance one might expect such work to be performed by licensed professionals working for pay who could, among other things, opt to be covered under the Workers’ Compensation Act for their own protection. Cf. § 20-418 C.G.S. et. seq. (Home Improvement Act).

As there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the trial commissioner’s decision, we accordingly affirm that ruling.

Commissioners Stephen B. Delaney and Michelle D. Truglia concur.

1 The “plain meaning” rule of § 1-2z provides, “The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance, be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.” BACK TO TEXT

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