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California and the West

Hope Raised for Holocaust Claim Payouts

Insurance: Head of international panel on the issue says first checks may arrive by summer's end. State bill demanding lists of policies from firms sparks dispute.

April 14, 1999|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

In the face of doubts that Holocaust insurance claims will ever be honored, former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who heads an international commission seeking to resolve the thorny issue, said he hopes the commission will make its first payments to claimants by summer's end.

"We will not be successful until we have begun to pay some claims," said Eagleburger, 68. In October he agreed to chair the commission, created last summer in response to legislation and massive lawsuits in California and New York claiming that a number of European insurers had denied valid insurance claims lodged by Holocaust survivors or the heirs of people who were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Eagleburger, in his first interview on the commission's work, also said he hoped that by the end of May the commission will establish procedures to identify, evaluate and pay claims on insurance policies issued to Holocaust survivors and the descendants of people who perished.

However, some key legislators and Jewish leaders remain skeptical that the commission--which has offices in Washington and London--can deliver without further external pressure.

This doubt parallels tensions between state and federal officials in recent years over how best to reach agreements between Holocaust survivors and Swiss banks and German corporations.

Prime among the skeptics is Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles). And today the Assembly begins consideration of Knox-authored legislation that would require any insurance company operating in California to disclose a list of all policies that it or its affiliates issued in Europe from 1929 to 1945, or face losing its license to do business in the state.

"Most people who may have a [Holocaust-related] claim against one of these companies don't know it," Knox said. "This bill would create a registry that would let people know whether they have a claim.

"For 50 years, the companies told the world there were no claims," he said, noting that the firms' position has been belied by revelations in the past two years that records of such policies still exist.

Earlier Measure Blocked by Veto

An identical Knox measure passed the Legislature without an opposing vote last year but was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who said it might serve simply as a catalyst for further litigation.

The Alliance of American Insurers, a national trade association, has said it will oppose the current measure, contending that it would put an unfair burden on the U.S. subsidiaries of overseas carriers and is superfluous because of other legislation passed last year.

Six European companies--Allianz AG, Axa, Generali, Zurich, Basler Leben and Winterthur Leben--with California affiliates are participating in the commission, which is charged with resolving all unpaid insurance claims of Holocaust victims.

But Knox and Jewish leaders said involvement with the commission is not enough.

"While I am supportive of the work of the commission, I firmly believe that pressure put on the insurance companies to be forthright and divulge this information is essential," said Michael A. Hirschfeld of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

David A. Lash, executive director of Bet Tzedek, the Fairfax Avenue nonprofit legal services program that represents hundreds of Holocaust survivors, also strongly endorsed the bill, saying that "the continuation of litigation and legislation will keep the commission's feet to the fire. The commission has no enforcement power; it is totally voluntary."

Eagleburger has not taken a position on the Knox bill. But he said he was angry that state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) had urged state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush to use other legislation passed last year to strip the licenses of insurance companies that are not paying valid Holocaust-related claims.

Eagleburger contended that if California took such action it might prompt companies to cease their participation in the commission and discourage other companies from joining the commission process, thus possibly further delaying payments to elderly Holocaust survivors.

"As far as the commission is concerned, I wish we could move faster," Eagleburger said in a telephone interview. Moreover, he said it was a "disgrace" that the U.S. government had not dealt with this problem decades ago. But he also stressed that under the terms by which it was created, the commission--whose 13 members include insurance company representatives, U.S. and foreign regulators and representatives of Jewish organizations--has to proceed by consensus "or we will get nowhere."

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