Insurance: liability

When you become serious about handbell music, and especially when you start ringing outside the umbrella of a church group, it’s time to start thinking about insurance. When handbell musicians talk about insurance, they usually mean property insurance on their bells. When you think about it, though, the greater risk is liability.

People can and do sue other people for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, while your potential property loss as a handbell musician is what it would cost to replace all your equipment. While it wouldn’t be fun to have to replace all your bells at your own expense, it’s probably within your means; after all, you bought them in the first place. But if someone sues you, the legal costs alone will quickly add up to more than most people can afford, and far more than the value of a set of handbells. We live in a litigious society, and the time to think about protecting yourself (and your assets or future earnings) is before something unfortunate happens. Also, as you work with more performance venues, eventually someone will ask you for proof of insurance.

Consider the following scenarios:

• You use a church as a concert venue and fail to lock up properly afterwards. Maybe you overlooked an open door, or were tired and just forgot to check. Someone gets in and steals property or commits vandalism, or attacks someone arriving early the next morning. Because leaving the building unlocked overnight was negligent, the church’s insurance company refuses the claim.
• You lose control of a bell (or the bell comes apart) mid-stroke, and it flies into the audience and injures someone.
• You drop a case of bells on someone’s foot. (This actually happened to my foot. Fortunately, there was no harm done, and the culprit will have to try again with a heavier bell case and better aim.)
• You borrow equipment, and it gets lost, stolen, or damaged in a car accident. Your own property insurance company refuses the claim because it covers only property you own, or borrowed property that you declare, which you forgot to do.
• On the way to a concert for which you’ll be paid, you fail to yield at an intersection and collide with another car. Your auto insurance company refuses the other driver’s claim on the grounds your car isn’t insured for business use.
• On the way to a concert for your community group, one of the cars gets into an accident and a ringer passenger is killed. The ringer’s relatives sue the driver, the choir, and everyone in a leadership position.
• The parents of a teen ringer alleging s/he was molested by another ringer bring a civil suit against the bell choir director for allowing the abuse to occur.
• Your choir has substantial revenue from concerts and recordings. A member sues for misappropriation of funds by someone in leadership.
• A ringer in your choir, or one of your handbell students, develops carpal tunnel syndrome, and sues you for the injury.

In all these situations, wouldn’t you want to protect your assets, safeguard your reputation, and be in a position to set things right for whoever you inadvertently harmed?

If you’re working entirely as a volunteer, you may be covered under your homeowner’s and/or auto policy. Call your insurance company and ask. Consider an umbrella liability policy, which may protect you against claims for multiple kinds of risks. Ask for advice about how much coverage you need for your circumstances, considering not only your activities but your assets and income, both current and potential. Umbrella policies are often inexpensive, though you may have to consolidate your auto, home, boat, etc. insurance coverage with a single company to be able to buy one. That’s because umbrella insurance starts to cover you at the point where the underlying coverage (like your homeowner’s policy) leaves off.

If you accept any kind of pay, even if it’s called a donation or honorarium, you’re no longer a volunteer. Explain your activities to your insurance company or agent, and ask whether you need commercial liability coverage. Choose your insurance carrier wisely. Often coverage must be in place both when the incident occurs and when a claim is brought, and for all the time in between. In the carpal tunnel scenario, for example, you may be sued years after the fact. Ask about this continuous coverage requirement, and consider carefully when changing or canceling your policy.

If your choir has directors and officers (D&O) liability insurance, it probably covers only duly appointed or elected officers. If you’re a leader in your community choir, ensure there’s documentation showing you were properly appointed or elected as required by your group’s bylaws. (Here the term “director” means someone in authority, not necessarily a music director.) If you don’t have D&O liability insurance, look into buying it. If your choir is incorporated, that can offer some level of protection both to the choir and to its members and leaders. However, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never be sued personally because of your participation.

Insurance companies often advise that you not disclose the limits of your coverage, unless absolutely necessary. You may have to disclose them when providing proof of insurance to a venue, for instance, but shouldn’t casually discuss them in a handbell forum. Consider the information confidential, like your bank balance.

Risk management: There are other measures you can take in a community bell choir or small ensemble to manage your risk as an officer, or even just a member:

• Establish a policy that anyone transporting members of your bell choir or your equipment to official activities, like a concert, must have a current valid driver’s license and at least the minimum auto insurance required by your state.
• Provide regular training on safe ringing habits, including how to carry bell cases and other equipment. Document in your group meeting minutes what you covered in the training.
• Establish clear policies about working with minors. The choir might establish a policy that all members must be over the age of 18, or that teens will be accepted only if a parent also joins the choir and commits to supervise the youth at all bell choir activities. Your church may have a training program you can attend to learn other measures you can take to protect both the young person (from a traumatic experience) and the adults (from false accusations).
• Provide a written accounting at least once a year to the members concerning funds raised and spent by the group.
• Whenever there’s turnover in the treasurer position, have two other members audit the books before the new treasurer takes over.
• Require all members, as a condition of membership, to sign a liability release. Once a bell choir gets beyond the start-up phase, current members may resist this. Explain that it’s not a question of trust, but of good business practice. You might ask for releases to be signed when the bell choir reaches the point of incorporation or filing for tax-exempt status, explaining that with your new status comes responsibility for operating in a more business-like way. Another point at which you might do this is when the choir is about to travel somewhere. In any event, you can always require it of new members, and, with turnover, you’ll eventually have signed documents from everyone.

Here’s a sample release document to get you started:

Participant Release Form
[Bell choir name]

I, _______________________________________________, a voluntary member of the [bell choir name] handbell ensemble, do hereby acknowledge and agree that [bell choir], and its officers and directors, shall not be responsible for any loss or injury which may affect me as a result of my participation in [bell choir] as a Ringer Member.

I acknowledge my understanding and acceptance of the risks associated with participating in a performing handbell/handchime ensemble and hereby state my intention to hold [bell choir], and its officers and directors, harmless for any liability that may arise. I further acknowledge that I have adequate ability to cover any liability through my own means or insurance. Such liability may include:

• Any physical detriment, either long- or short-term, resulting from playing handbells, handchimes, or other musical instruments.
• Any physical detriment arising from moving, taking down, or setting up handbell instruments or associated instruments or equipment, whether at a rehearsal or performance venue, or in transit to, from, or between either.
• Any injury or property damage or loss associated with transportation to or from a rehearsal or performance venue to myself or other members of [bell choir].

Signed by me on this ________ day of _______________, [year].

Printed Name of Ringer Member

Signature of Ringer Member

Printed Name of Witness

You might check with your church or other organizations to see if they have a format you can adapt to your needs, or look online. Whatever format you choose, you’ll want to have a lawyer vet it for validity in your state. Often an attorney with some connection to your choir will review and critique a simple document pro bono (without charge) so long as s/he doesn’t have to draft it from scratch.

Another time, I’ll write about property insurance.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,