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California and the West

Davis Presses Insurers on Holocaust

Claims: In a bipartisan effort, governor, other officials will announce measures for compelling payments to insured victims.

April 30, 1999|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

California officials are raising the heat on insurance companies that have resisted paying Holocaust-era insurance claims.

Today, in a strong show of bipartisan unity, Gov. Gray Davis and several other Democratic elected officials will share a platform at the Simon Wiesenthal Center with Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, a Republican, to announce several measures designed to get the companies to start paying claims to elderly Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

There are about 20,000 Holocaust survivors in California out of about 860,000 worldwide.

The actions, designed to put public pressure on the companies, include unveiling an Internet Web site that will provide specifics on companies that have failed to pay valid claims. The site will also include the names of officials of those companies and how they can be contacted.

"This is public pressure. We make no bones about it," Quackenbush said in an interview. "We want these companies to feel pressure if they are not cooperating."

The Web site address is http://www.insurance.ca.gov. The state is also setting up a new, free hotline where potential claimants can call for information. The number is (888) CDI-INFO.

Additionally, Quackenbush said he will release letters sent this week to several European-based insurance companies informing them that they must tell him by May 12 whether they, or any of their current or former affiliates, issued policies between 1929 and 1945 that are the subject of legislation passed in California last year.

The legislation, written by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), provides that any insurer that has failed to pay a valid claim from Holocaust survivors is subject to losing its license to do business in California until the claim is paid.

The letters also direct the companies to inform Quackenbush by May 12 whether they will participate in the work of an existing international commission that has been set up to handle Holocaust-era claims.

Several large European-based insurers are participating in the commission's work, but Quackenbush and Lawrence Eagleburger, the former U.S. secretary of state who heads the commission, said there are many other companies that are not participating. Having additional companies participating in the commission's work would improve the chances of negotiating an overall settlement.

As negotiations continue, so do questions about whether the commission will prove effective in gaining restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The commission's next meeting, May 6, "will determine if we succeed or not," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which is represented on the commission.

California's law provides that in making decisions on whether to suspend an insurer's license, the insurance commissioner should consider "whether the insurer has participated in good faith" in the commission's work and "whether the commission is making meaningful and expeditious progress toward paying claims."

Davis' active participation in the thorny, emotional issue adds considerable symbolic weight to California's role in the commission.

"My hope is that by adding the weight of the governor's office, California can communicate a strong united front to European insurance companies that are withholding proceeds that legitimately belong to Holocaust survivors" and the heirs of those who were killed by the Nazis, Davis said in an interview.

Davis said he was particularly disturbed at stories that he had heard about survivors' claims being denied "because they had stopped making [premium] payments" while they were imprisoned in concentration camps or heirs whose claims had been rebuffed because they could not provide death certificates of parents who had been killed in the camps.

"I can't imagine anything worse than to have survived the ravages and brutality of the Holocaust only to learn that my life insurance or annuities into which I paid premiums were not available for me," Davis said.

Davis and Hayden have publicly urged Quackenbush to suspend licenses of companies that are not complying with the law. Eagleburger, by contrast, has expressed concern about the possible negative impact on the commission's work that might come about if California moved to suspend an insurer's license.

Thus far, Quackenbush has not initiated proceedings against any company.

So far, the five large companies participating in the commission's process have placed $90 million into a "humanitarian fund," for potential future payment to either survivors or Jewish organizations. The companies also have contributed $10 million for the operations of the commission, which has offices in London and Washington.

Christopher Worthley, a spokesman for Allianz AG, the Munich-based parent of Fireman's Fund, said the commission is still grappling with important issues. They include how to assign a value to insurance policies written years ago, how to account for World War II reparations already paid by the German government and who bears responsibility for policies written in eastern European countries where insurance firms were nationalized when Communist regimes came to power after World War II.

Despite the complexity of the issues and the high level of emotion surrounding them, Worthley said Allianz is optimistic that the commission will be successful. "We don't think anyone involved in the commission wants to break up an international claims process," Worthley said.

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