Menu JTA Search

Judge in California rules firm must face Holocaust-era lawsuit

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 26 (JTA) — In a precedent-setting decision, a Los Angeles judge has ruled that European companies can be sued in California courts for non-payment of life insurance policies dating back to the Holocaust era. Monday’s ruling stemmed from a $135 million suit against Italy’s largest insurance firm, Assicurazioni Generali. But the decision that Generali must face trial here over the lawsuit may also be applied to other European insurers and more than 6,000 Holocaust survivors living in California. “Let this landmark ruling be the shot heard around the world that it will not be business as usual for insurance companies accused of stonewalling Nazi victims,” said attorney Lisa Stern. She is a member of the Stern family of Los Angeles, which filed the $135 million suit a year ago on behalf of family members living in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, as well as in Israel and England. All are descendants of Moshe “Mor” Stern, a wealthy wine and spirits producer in prewar Hungary, who had six sons and a daughter. Between 1929 and 1939, he took out large insurance policies through Generali’s Prague office. Moshe Stern, his wife and three sons perished in Auschwitz. When a surviving son tried to initiate a claim with Generali in June 1945, he was turned away. The family testified that Generali stonewalled all requests ever since. In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper rejected the firm’s assertion that it is not subject to the jurisdiction of a California court in a matter originating in a foreign country. Cooper pointed out that a Generali-owned subsidiary does substantial business in California. She also cited a law, passed by the California legislature last year, which specifically authorized state courts to deal with cases such as that brought by the Stern family. In a move reflecting the significance they attributed to the case, officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles appeared in court to support the Sterns. A trial date is to be set March 25. Generali officials said they will appeal the judge’s ruling. Along with several other European insurers, Generali was targeted last year by a task force of U.S. insurance commissioners investigating unpaid prewar policies. In a series of hearings hosted by the commissioners last year, numerous witnesses charged that the European firms have been stalling for 50 years to avoid payment on policies taken out by Jews in prewar years. The commissioners believe that Generali, one of the largest insurers of Jews in prewar Eastern Europe, could be liable for as much as $1 billion.