In September 2008, a user named PosadaClown had what he claimed was “the worst night of my clowning career” on the message board Clown-Forum.com. During a performance at a Northumberland, UK club—attended by his whole family, as well as his “gorgeous new wife, who herself likes to don the red nose and baggy trousers from time to time”—the clown “did a stunt which involved jumping off a trampoline onto a skateboard,” he wrote. “I was supposed to shoot offstage but ended up in the front row, where I managed to land right on top of the mayor's wife, breaking her leg. The poor woman was in agony and a few in the crowd took exception and beat me quite badly.” He wrote later that she was “suing [him] for ‘malicious bodily harm.’”
"Crumbs that is a bad story," user Millicent—"not a clown"—responded. "I do hope you're insured."
Yes, clown insurance is a thing. Injuries to carnival-style artists and spectators are rare, but can come as swiftly as a pie to the face and can be as sobering as a blast of seltzer water—so several companies that insure events and entertainers offer policies specifically for clowns. Among them are K&K Insurance, Westpointe, and Stratum, which lists “sample claims” such as “Someone could slip and fall because supplies are left on the floor or water spills” or “A balloon could pop and hurt someone.” The World Clown Association also offers insurance to its members.
Andrew Moler, business manager of the WCA, says that 1637 clowns have purchased a policy through the organization, but that “there are very few claims, and they’re usually what insurance agencies called ‘nuisance claims,’” filed in the hopes the defendant will pay out a small sum to make the claim go away.
In his five years at the WCA, Moler can recall only two big cases. The first involved a balloon routine: The clown gathered volunteers from the audience, sat them on a series of balloons, and then popped each one, dropping the participants’ buttocks to the floor. A man claimed injury and sued the clown, the World Clown Association, and the mall where the event took place. The case went to trial and the insurers ended up paying “tens of thousands of dollars,” Moler says.
The other large case—at least by clown insurer standards—a member of the WCA spilled face paint on a carpet at a child’s birthday party. The homeowner sued for the cost of cleaning the entire house.
Insuring clowns is usually quiet work that generates little profit. “It’s a low liability group,” says Ashley Robinson, a representative for Francis L. Dean and Associates, which underwrites Stratum’s clown policy, and “it’s not expensive to have a policy.” Her company’s clown coverage has a $350 annual premium. The WCA’s insurance costs $140 per year, in addition to the cost of membership.
Entertainer insurance in general is “a tiny market,” according to James Lynch of the Insurance Information Institute—so tiny that the institute doesn’t even have monetary figures on it—and clown insurance a tiny subset of that.
Despite its microscopic place on the insurance landscape, one company stays afloat while dealing exclusively in this type of policy. It’s the one that more or less pioneered insurance for clowns and similar performers: the Specialty Insurance Agency, based in New Richmond, Wis.
In 1992, the Osman Shrine, a Shriners affiliate in St. Paul, Minn., decided to stop covering the clowns among its members—who entertain children as part of the group’s mission of merriment—and asked them to provide their own insurance. One of those Shriner clowns was Al Fellerman, who was also an agent for Farmers Insurance Group.
According to Stephanie Weiss, the current head of Specialty—and Fellerman's daughter—Fellerman found that there was no policy available to clowns. So he used his connections in the industry to form Clowns of the U.S., a broker that provided policies to him and his big-nosed brethren at the Shrine. After a few years, he opened it up to all clowns. In 2004, Fellerman retired and Weiss (not a performer herself) took over, rebranding the company Specialty Insurance Agency and moving it to Wisconsin. Fellerman passed away in 2014.
Today, Specialty insures 5000 clowns, jugglers, balloon twisters, face painters, magicians, street performers, caricature artists, fire dancers, aerialists, and other entertainers. Until last year it insured hypnotists, but when the company changed underwriters, the new one deemed hypnotists too much of a liability. “They were the smallest percentage of our business but they had the highest number of claims,” Weiss says. “Too many people were bumping their heads against each other and jumping into imaginary mosh pits.”
Currently, Specialty offers two tiers of policies. The first costs $260 to $280 a year and covers performers for up to $2 million of liability. It’s offered to lower-risk entertainers—those who practice standard clowning, puppeteering, and magic. The second tier, costing $350 to $375 a year and offering a liability cap of $5 million, is extended to aerialists and fire artists, whose work presents higher risks.
But even among the riskier pool of clients, few claims have been dramatic or costly, according to Weiss. “Most performers have safety precautions in place,” she says. As for cases in the first tier, Weiss recalls an incident in which the extending nose of a puppeteer’s Pinocchio mannequin poked a child in the eye and one in which a clown failed to see a screen door upon dashing into a client’s house and wrecked it. In the second, riskier tier, Weiss remembers an incident in which wind toppled an aerialist’s rig mid performance and it landed on the arm of a spectator.
The World Clown Association’s policy stipulates what parts of an act it insures, covering juggling and three types of animals: dogs, doves, and rabbits. It doesn’t cover other animals, nor does it cover acrobatics or anything involving flames.
Although the liability risks of clowning are low, Moler says insurance “does offer peace of mind, one less thing to worry about while performing.”
And a clown should be, if anything, carefree.