JERUSALEM (Aug. 20)
A day after Italy’s largest insurer agreed to pay $100 million as part of a settlement of Holocaust-era claims, concerns have emerged about the deal.
Those concerns were voiced Thursday by a U.S. state official visiting here and Holocaust survivors in Israel.
Deborah Senn, the insurance commissioner of Washington state, said claims by Holocaust survivors against Assicurazioni Generali could top $1 billion. Senn told reporters that she would “absolutely not” sign the agreement with Generali if the company would not agree to pay more than $100 million.
The settlement is subject to the approval of a U.S. federal judge and the U.S. National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a task force headed by Senn that has been investigating claims that European insurance firms blocked payments to the families of death camp victims.
Generali’s board of directors is expected to meet Aug. 28 to approve the settlement.
Senn was visiting Jerusalem for meetings with senior Israeli officials about the Generali settlement. Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on diaspora affairs, was among those meeting with Senn.
“The insurance chapter is beginning to unfold,” said Brown, calling the settlement agreement a “substantial step forward in the claims of Holocaust victims.”
Senn and Brown noted that the agreement calls for Generali to open all its wartime records — which could include important information about the wartime activities of other European insurers.
Generali recently gave the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial a CD-ROM containing more than 300,000 names of policy holders from the World War II era. The majority of those names are Jews, Yad Vashem officials said Wednesday. But Generali gave the CD to Yad Vashem on condition that it does not publicize the lists.
Before reaching the settlement, Generali was one of 16 insurers facing a class- action lawsuit for $16 billion filed on behalf of survivors.
Lawyers for the survivors estimate that the lawsuit, pending in New York federal court, could affect 10,000 claimants and involve billions of dollars in damages.
There is another potential pitfall in the Generali settlement — how a value will be placed on the insurance policies for which claims have been filed.
Senn said most of Generali’s files contained life insurance policies that were originally worth between $1,000 and $10,000 — and which are now worth ten times that amount in current valuation rates.
She said Generali and other insurers may try to limit their liability by saying that deflated postwar currency rates should be used to value the policies.
Some Holocaust survivors in Israel also expressed concerns about the settlement.
Moshe Sanbar, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, representing 29 groups and some 300,000 survivors, said the agreement was reached too fast.
“I still have no idea whether they will make sure that every survivor will be able to access information necessary to submit a claim,” said Sanbar.
Meanwhile, a private lawsuit for $135 million against Generali will go forward, despite Wednesday’s settlement.
Attorneys for the Stern family, which filed the suit and resides in the United States, Israel and Britain, said they will pursue their action in a Los Angeles Superior Court on a “fast track.”
The plaintiffs are the children and grandchildren of Moshe “Mor” Stern, a wine and spirits producer in Hungary before the war who took out insurance policies with Generali that are now said to be worth $10 million.
He perished in Auschwitz, together with his wife and three of their six sons.
Lisa Stern, a member of the family and co-counsel in the case, said the suit asks for $125 million in punitive damages, in addition to the $10 million in actual damages.
Under a recent California law, plaintiffs against European insurance companies that do business in the state can sue in California state courts.
The law also extends the statute of limitations for such claims to the year 2010.