How does body-part insurance work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 1 2006 6:15 PM

Does the Explainer Have Billion-Dollar Legs?

Body-part insurance: a primer.

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Mariah Carey, with legs. Click image to expand.
Mariah Carey, with legs

A 16-foot replica of Mariah Carey's legs turned up in New York this week, as she kicked off a new advertising campaign and her "Adventures of Mimi" arena tour. Tabloids reported that the pop singer recently insured her lower extremities for $1 billion, although Carey herself wouldn't confirm the rumor. Is celebrity body-part insurance just a publicity stunt?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Yes, for the most part. A big star can generate buzz for herself—or the company she represents—by circulating the notion that her body parts are worth a fortune. (Carey's billion-dollar legs bring to mind the rumor about J-Lo's billion-dollar derriere that made the rounds a few years back.) In 2004, PR Week ran a piece about a supermarket company that insured the taste buds of its senior wine buyer for more than $10 million to generate some press: Six national newspapers and three magazines covered the story; the company's wine sales went up by 19 percent.

Entertainment companies do insure the bodies of their celebrity cash cows. Television networks and sports teams often supply their stars with general disability insurance, which covers any job-stopping injury—to any body part. And it's pretty easy to get disability insurance from standard insurers in the United States. To get insurance for a particular body part, though, you'll probably need to turn to the "surplus lines" market, which covers all the oddball risks that the regular companies don't handle.

To get a really hefty surplus lines policy—like Mariah Carey's putative billion-dollar legs deal—you'll have to take your business overseas. Lloyd's of London has provided some of the most famous celebrity body-part policies, like those for Jimmy Durante's $50,000 nose, Bette Davis' $28,000 waistline, and Michael Flatley's $39 million legs. (These arrangements began during the silent-film era: Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had one of the first "scar policies," but the practice is said to have originated with the cross-eyed vaudevillian Ben Turpin, who would have collected $20,000 if his eyes had gone straight.)

In general, you'll have to pay higher premiums for surplus lines insurance than you would for insurance on the regular market. An entertainment company will typically max out on standard life and disability insurance for a given celebrity before turning to specialty policies. The oddball body-part policies can then become a means of adding extra coverage for an especially valuable star.

You don't have to be a celebrity to insure your body parts—anyone can order up some specialty insurance if he thinks he needs it. As long as you're willing to pay the premium, you can get insurance for the body part of your choice. In the United Kingdom, the members of the Derbyshire Whiskers Club insured their beards against "fire and theft," and a soccer fan insured himself against psychic trauma if England loses this year's World's Cup. The Explainer even looked into coverage for the finger he uses to manipulate the track pad on his laptop; it turned out that general disability insurance would be a better deal.

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Explainer thanks Alan J. Levin of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge and Thor Valdmanis of Lloyd's America.