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California and the West

Creation of Holocaust Insurance Panel OKd

Accord: Jewish groups and four European firms agree to establish a commission to resolve claims of survivors and heirs.

April 09, 1998|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

In a potentially significant breakthrough, leaders of major Jewish organizations, four European insurance companies and the California and New York insurance departments agreed Wednesday to establish an international commission to resolve claims lodged by Holocaust survivors and the heirs of people who were among the 6 million murdered in World War II-era genocide.

The agreement is designed to expeditiously resolve thousands of pending insurance claims, according to California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush and New York Supt. of Insurance Neil D. Levin.

"I am truly encouraged that we have been able to begin a process that will unite U.S. and European regulators and insurance companies to meet the common goal of assuring swift resolution of this issue and payments to claimants," said Quackenbush, chairman of the Holocaust asset recovery subcommittee of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners.

Levin said the agreement "provides the necessary framework to provide long overdue justice to Holocaust victims and their families. . . . Some of these people have been waiting to collect for over 50 years."

The four companies that signed the agreement are Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, Allianz of Germany, AZA of France and Zurich of Switzerland.

Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress and Saul Kagan of the Claims Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, both members of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, also signed the agreement. Neither could be reached for comment.

However, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has also been involved in the issue, said he was pleased by Wednesday's announcement. He said the establishment of the commission--which he referred to as "an independent third party"--to evaluate claims is a crucial positive development.

Still, he quickly added that there could be a "rocky road" in securing the agreement of other insurance companies, particularly those in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. "We are far from the end of the day on this issue."

The concept of such an international commission was first suggested by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) at a congressional hearing in February.

Wednesday's development came on the heels of a similar announcement late last month calling for the creation of a commission on Holocaust-related claims against Swiss banks.

A massive federal class-action lawsuit based on allegations of unpaid Holocaust-era insurance claims against 15 European insurance companies is pending in federal court in New York. All those companies, or affiliates of theirs, do business in the U.S.

"In many instances, proceeds from the insurance policies of the victims of Nazi persecution were used to finance and extend the war or otherwise enrich Nazi war criminals," according to the suit.

Quackenbush has said about 20,000 California residents could be affected by a settlement of such insurance claims. Levin said there are even more people in New York, though he would not offer an estimate.

The specter of the federal lawsuit and Quackenbush's threats to take away the licenses of companies that were not honoring valid claims appear to have played a key role in Wednesday's action. Quackenbush has held several hearings on the matter in recent months. Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims told wrenching stories about their attempts to collect on policies. Lawyers said their clients had been robbed of benefits on policies that had been paid for in good faith.

A memorandum of intent designed to resolve the thorny, emotional insurance issue was signed after a four-hour meeting in New York on Wednesday. The parties signing it agreed to:

* Establish an international commission composed of government authorities, insurers, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and other interested parties.

* Establish a process to investigate policies that insured victims of the Holocaust and to resolve the claims.

* Consult with governmental authorities to obtain appropriate exemptions from regulatory actions and relevant legislation for insurers participating in the process and work to resolve all pending legislation.

* Establish a fund to accomplish these goals and provide humanitarian relief to Holocaust victims.

Levin said that ultimately the so-called "equity fund" could be used to help people who were believed to have valid claims but lack the necessary documentation to prevail in court. "Many of these people are octogenarians, and there are no guarantees in the judicial system," he said.

The size of that fund has not been decided and that could be a problem down the road, according to participants in the talks. Nonetheless, considerable optimism about the prospects of an amicable resolution was expressed by people who previously have been very combative toward one another.

"Generali is enthusiastic about the memorandum of intent," said the company's lead lawyer, M. Scott Vayer, in New York. "We look forward to working cooperatively . . . toward the establishment of the international commission and the rapid resolution of the issues described in the memorandum."

In mid-March, Generali, one of the primary defendants in the New York lawsuit, agreed to Quackenbush's demand that his staff be allowed to examine the company's records in Trieste, Italy. Earlier, Generali had resisted a subpoena issued by Quackenbush's lawyers.

Vayer said he was hopeful that the other defendants in the New York suit would agree to participate in the commission and the claims process. But Cooper said he had been told that insurance companies in several Eastern European countries already had indicated resistance. "There are other companies that will be tougher to crack," he said.

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