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LONDON-Theatrical producers and their insurers are not raising their hackles over whether a New York court will decide that Rum Tum Tugger acted too much the alley cat when he made amorous advances to an audience member during a Broadway stage performance of the hit musical "Cats."
In London and New York, members of the insurance and theatrical communities said they believe that even if the plaintiff in a recently filed lawsuit wins her case-and they acknowledge that any award is likely to be paid by insurers-she is unlikely to win a big damage award. More importantly, they do not believe the action heralds any trend toward audience litigiousness or emerging insurable risks to the theater community.
Evelyn Amato is seeking $12 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Rum Tum's alter ego, actor David Hibbard, and a number of other parties: the Shubert Organization, a co-producer and owner of the theater; "Cats" Director Trevor Nunn; Co-Producer Cameron Mackintosh; the composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber; and his theatrical company, the Really Useful Group.
The incident leading to her action happened in January 1996 when Ms. Amato attended a showing of "Cats," and Rum Tum Tugger, ignoring her resistance, twice pulled her up from her fourth row orchestra seat to get her to dance with him. This, followed by his leaping onto the arms of her seat once she had regained it and making lewd gestures, caused her distress, embarrassment and a disrupted love life with her fiance, according to the suit Ms. Amato's attorney filed late last month in the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan.
The suit by Ms. Amato seeks damages for assault and battery, invasion of privacy, violation of civil rights, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment.
Her lawyer, Michael G. O'Neill, expects a 11/2- to 21/2-year wait before the case goes to court, if an out-of-court settlement is not reached. He has criticized the production company's letter of apology and an offer of free tickets to the show, likening it to "offering someone another ticket on the Titanic."
Mr. O'Neill said what makes this case different is not that a member of the "Cats" cast touched Ms. Amato when she did not want to be touched, but "the mean-spirited degradation" to which she was subjected.
One of New York's leading theatrical insurance brokers said the case is unlikely to directly increase liability exposure of theaters and production companies or to open the curtain on new risk exposures.
Bob Boyar, New York-based senior vp in the arts and entertainments unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc., said, "I doubt that this is necessarily the onset of a trend."
In his almost 50 years' experience as a theatrical insurance broker, he has found that "theatrical producers are careful about how they treat their audiences." Furthermore, very few stage productions involve audience participation of the sort that led to Ms. Amato's embarrassment.
Mr. Boyar said Ms. Amato's suit is not the first filed by an audience member against producers. He recalled a case six or seven years ago when a member of the audience sued after being hit on the shoulder by a piece of wood from a chair that was designed to break up on impact on stage. The case was settled out of court for no more than a few thousand dollars.
Kim Bullimore, underwriting manager for London-based SLE Worldwide Europe Ltd., a sports, leisure and entertainment insurance unit of Aon Group Inc., says it is unlikely that such a case would ever even have been brought in the United Kingdom. If it were, "the most she might have expected to get would be a couple of thousand pounds."
This view is shared by Robert Wood, a broker specializing in theatrical insurance with London-based Adam Brothers Contingency Ltd. He, too, said that "(British pounds) 2,000 ($3,281) would be a limit" on what anyone could hope to win in such a case in England.
Both Mr. Bullimore and Mr. Wood thought it more likely that Ms. Amato's case, should it proceed, could set a worrisome trend in the United States. Such a trend would have adverse effects on foreign treater groups putting on productions there.
However, brokers and insurers on both sides of the Atlantic agree that insurance with favorable limits is readily available to theatrical producers and theater owners, and on favorable terms in today's buyer's market.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this case, it is that theatrical producers must be aware that they cannot assume their liability exposures will automatically be covered under a theater owner's insurance policy. In most cases, they are not.
Typically, a theater owner would have property and liability insurance to cover such risks involving the building, loss of profit, business interruption, cancellation of the show, and employee and third-party liability for injuries on the premises unrelated to the show.
Mr. Boyar said contracts issued by theater owners when contracting with shows generally contain clauses requiring the production company to take out its own liability insurance. It would be unusual for any production company to ignore this clause, he said, because they are well aware that they face exposure to any number of much more common types of liability claims, such as injury to cast, crew or audience members from fire caused by a member of the production team.
Mr. Wood said that, in some cases, the theater owner will arrange to have a production company added temporarily to its liability policy for the period it is using the theater.
In nearly all cases, it is the broker who is crucial in advising theatrical groups on their insurance needs. Few production companies are large enough to employ a risk manager, though responsibility for insurance is generally assigned to a designated person within the company. This person may work anywhere within the group from finance to accounting or production.
One of the crucial elements to remember when arranging theatrical insurance is that "theater owners have very stringent contractual agreements with production companies whereby they try to pass on as much liability as possible," said Emelia Accardi, managing director of Chubb & Son Inc., one of the largest entertainments insurers.
Ms. Accardi, whose company is a unit of Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Corp., said her underwriters usually ask to see these contracts and then have them examined by Chubb & Son's attorneys. "This allows us to assess the level of risk and to determine how to price our products," she said.
Chubb & Son also offers a loss control advisory service to help clients assess their safety and other exposures.
Ms. Accardi agreed that it is currently a buyer's market for theatrical insurance. "Plenty of cover is available, and limits present no problems," she said.
The Really Useful Group in London was unwilling to comment on the "Cats" suit or more generally on its insurance arrangements. But insurers said a company of its size almost certainly would have someone in-house designated to handle insurance matters.
Ms. Amato's suit has been passed on to the group's lawyers, according to a Really Useful Group spokesman in New York.
Mr. Bullimore of SLE says the Really Useful Group, because of its size and the fact that it always has a number of productions running at any one time, tends to buy its insurance under an annual policy. Smaller companies often insure each production separately.
In Britain's Royal National Theatre group, which operates three repertory theaters, insurance is the responsibility of Sharon Clark, assistant to the general manager.
Working closely with a specialist broker who has handled the group's insurance for about 20 years, she has encompassed all of the group's coverage in one portfolio of policies renewed annually. Even foreign touring productions are covered in the package. She finds there is no shortage of insurance capacity and that rates are reasonable for all the coverage needed.
For Ms. Clark, the "Cats" lawsuit presents no worries, mainly because Britain is "not a litigious society," she said.
The worst audience-related claim the Royal National Theatre has faced was for a dry cleaning bill from someone who was within range of a custard pie thrown on stage.
The only area of emerging concern for Ms. Clark is terrorism coverage, a result mainly of IRA terrorist bombings in England. She said this is a threat the Royal National Theatre is "looking at closely."