Circus performers occupy a gray area within workers’ compensation claims. Some workers may be classified as employees and others as independent contractors. A circus performer’s work classification determines whether he or she can receive workers’ compensation. Employees are entitled to workers’ compensation protection, whereas independent contractors usually are not.

Overview of Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance system that provides compensation for injured employees on the job. Employees are entitled to benefits payouts and minimal evidence is needed to substantiate their claims. In exchange, employees agree to waive their right to sue their employer in court. The employees receive compensation to pay for their medical bills, replace their lost wages, and similar expenses. This ensures employers are protected from protracted legal battles and reduced costs.

To receive workers’ compensation, employees must prove that (1) they’re employed, (2) they were injured while working, and (3) while performing a work-related function. If the employee establishes these basic facts, they need to show their damages (i.e., lost wages, medical bills, therapy, and similar costs). The insurer will then issue monthly payments to cover these costs.

Circus Workers

Circus performers regularly perform dangerous acrobatics and undergo extensive training before they perform. Regardless of training, an injury is possible. If an accident occurs, it is often serious or even fatal. Moreover, performers are dependent on the support of dozens of other staff members responsible for safety. Therefore, these performers put their lives in the hands of others regularly and can occasionally get seriously injured.

Whether performers can receive compensation for work-related injuries depends on if they are classified as independent contractors or employees. Performers classified as contractors are not protected by workers’ compensation and will not receive benefits from the company’s insurer.

However, even circus workers classified as employees are still unlikely to return to their profession, and workers’ compensation does not provide adequate benefits for these workers. When a performer is injured on the job, it is usually a catastrophic injury that renders the person unable to return to circus performances. Therefore, these workers will receive compensation to cover medical bills and a portion of their lost wages. However, once those benefits expire and they cannot return to work, they must find alternative employment. These issues are compounded when the performer’s injury is unrelated to his or her own activity – for example, a failure by safety equipment or inspection by staff.

Circus Worker Injuries by Example

Even today, with modern equipment, safety oversight, and redundant procedures, circus performers are injured on a far-too-often basis. Below are a few notable examples.

In 2004, Dessi Espana, a famous and experienced acrobatic performer – who even held a Guinness World Record – fell over 30 feet and landed on her head when a safety harness securing her scarves (which she was using to perform her acrobatic feats) failed dropping her.

In 2014, another group of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey performers were injured during a traveling circus performance in Providence, Rhode Island. The injury occurred during the Hair Hangers performance when safety rigging suspending the performers failed, dropping all eight. The injuries they suffered were life-altering, rendering them unable to continue performing.

In 2008, Natasha Hallett was a longtime Cirque du Soleil performer in the La Nouba show in Orlando, Florida. Ms. Hallett did not properly secure her harness for a flying trick, a mistake that also wasn’t caught by the safety check, causing her to fall 40 feet. She suffered numerous broken bones and couldn’t continue the show.

In each of these examples, the workers suffered fatal or serious injuries as a result of falling dozens of feet to the ground. Dessi Espana and the other Ringling Brothers performers were not classified as employees and therefore weren’t eligible for workers’ compensation coverage. However, they ultimately received compensation for their injuries from the venue operators because they were responsible for maintaining the safety equipment. Conversely, Ms. Hallett was covered by workers’ compensation; however, she could never perform again.

Workers’ Compensation v. Civil Suit

Circus performers on the job have two options: (1) workers’ compensation or (2) a civil suit. Workers’ compensation provides immediate money to offset lost wages and to cover medical bills. However, the money received is not nearly as much as they could receive in a civil suit for negligence or other causes of action. The performers injured in Rhode Island received a combined settlement of $52.5 million because the venue operator was responsible for maintaining the safety equipment. However, the performers had to litigate the case for over five years to receive that compensation. Conversely, Ms. Hallet received workers’ compensation, but the coverage was minimal and didn’t compensate her for lost wages she would have earned had she not been injured.