Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2014

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Acrobat’s death might give life to law that protects others

A bill to change a 60-year-old Nevada law that exempts promoters of theatrical performances from providing workers' compensation for players is to go before an Assembly committee today .

Championing the bill is a Las Vegas youth church group that provided comfort to an acrobat who had no insurance when he was seriously injured on the job and was left a quadriplegic three years ago.

Robert Nzovi, 28, died July 15 from injuries sustained when he fell from the top of a five-man pyramid on June 12, 2004, and broke his neck during a performance at the Desert Passage at the Aladdin.

It was Nzovi's second day on a job that, despite obvious dangers, offered neither health insurance nor workers' compensation coverage because state law does not require them for theatrical performers. His medical care wound up costing Clark County taxpayers about $1.3 million.

Clark County paid the convalescent home for what it calls "indigent care," which one Nzovi supporter said was not extensive.

"The convalescent home provided little or no rehabilitation - they just kept Robert alive," said Troy Oglesbee, director of the youth group at the Church of God 7th Day, which made Nzovi's care its project after reading about his plight in the Sun on Jan. 18, 2005.

"Robert was not required to be given care as simple as stretching his arms and legs," Oglesbee said. "At the end, he was emaciated and his fingers and toes were curling."

On his deathbed at a local convalescent home, Kenyan-born Nzovi told supporters and family members he wanted to change state industrial law so future victims would receive rehabilitative care. The bill, before the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee, is sponsored by Assemblymen William Horne and David Parks, both D-Las Vegas, and has 23 co-sponsors in the Assembly and Senate.

Nzovi underwent several surgeries and spent 21 months in a Summerlin nursing home. He remained paralyzed from the neck down, on a respirator and in need of 24-hour nursing care.

Oglesbee, a soil technician for a local engineering firm, and other Nzovi supporters blame a state system they say never should have exempted show performers when the workers' comp law was passed in 1947.

That law exempts "any person engaged as a theatrical or stage performer or in an exhibition."

The legislation seeks to mandate workers' compensation coverage for any performer in a "long-running entertainment production." That includes those who perform before a live audience for seven consecutive days, including rehearsals.

Some promoters classify their performers as "independent contractors" to not provide coverage. The bill seems to sew up that loophole by including all performers "whether or not the person would otherwise be considered an independent contractor."

Rod Correales, a professor at UNLV's Boyd Law School, is working on a research paper with one of his students, Jacqueline Jeanney, on the Nzovi incident and how it highlights holes in the state workers' compensation system.

The law as it is now "creates loopholes for unscrupulous promoters to avoid their responsibilities," said Correales, who teaches workers' compensation law.

"There are a multitude of potential injuries in these occupations that are quite hazardous. The simple solution is workers' comp - the only compelled insurance system in Nevada."

Correales and Oglesbee expect opposition to the measure. "I can understand promoters opposing this because it will cost them extra," Oglesbee said. " But we have seen firsthand that the bigger cost is the tragedy and expense to the public by not changing the law."

Oglesbee's youth group started the Robert Nzovi Foundation, which raised $3,800 to bring Nzovi's mother, Umazi Ngala, to Las Vegas from Kenya in 2006. The group also raised money with the African Christian Church of Las Vegas to give Nzovi a proper local burial. They have nicknamed the legislation, Assembly Bill 363, the "Robert Nzovi Bill."

Nzovi, raised in a grass shack with clay floors, worked regularly as an acrobat for five years, appearing in television on "The Steve Harvey Show," at Disney theme parks and during halftime shows at Harlem Globetrotters exhibition games.

Nzovi told the Sun in 2005 that he accepted the Las Vegas gig, thinking it was his shot at the big time , and that he took the stage despite learning after he had arrived that his contract provided no health insurance or workers' compensation coverage.

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