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Judge sets first-ever trial date for Holocaust-era insurance case

LOS ANGELES, June 1 (JTA) — For the first time, a trial date has been set regarding a claim on Holocaust-era compensation. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled last Friday that a trial involving a $135 million breach of contract suit brought by the descendants of Moshe “Mor” Stern, a Jewish merchant gassed at the Auschwitz camp, against the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali insurance company will begin Feb. 9. The judge’s decision “is an enormous breakthrough,” said William Shernoff, lead counsel for the Stern family, which now resides in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, as well as in Israel and England. “It will give Holocaust survivors all over the world new hope.” Although numerous class-action and other lawsuits have been filed in the United States and Europe against insurers and wartime employers of slave labor, none of these has gone to trial. Many cases have been put on hold as negotiations to reach a global settlement of these claims continue. Depending on the outcome of negotiations between European insurance giants and an international commission dealing with these matters, the same fate could await the Stern case. Moshe Stern, an affluent wine and spirits producer in Hungary, took out large insurance policies through the Prague office of Generali between 1929 and 1939. He, his wife and three of his sons subsequently perished in Auschwitz. His eldest son, Adolf Stern, who survived Buchenwald and is the lead plaintiff in the case, has testified that Generali officials in Prague demanded a death certificate for Moshe Stern when he approached them in 1945 to pay out on the policies. When Adolf Stern, now 82, explained that no such papers were issued by the Nazis, he was mocked and forcibly removed from the office. During the subsequent five decades, the Stern children and grandchildren repeatedly petitioned Generali to take action, but were rebuffed. A year ago, the Stern family filed the current lawsuit, seeking $10 million in actual damages and $125 million in punitive damages. Attorneys for Generali have held that California courts have no jurisdiction over cases originating in Europe and that the time limit for filing any such lawsuit had long expired. Cooper rejected these arguments, citing the Holocaust Victims Insurance Act, which the California legislature and governor approved last year. The act provides that California residents can file claims in state courts until the year 2010 against foreign insurance companies doing business in California. Cooper also rejected Generali’s motion to dismiss three separate suits similar to the Stern case, brought by three Los Angeles residents. Generali attorney Peter Simshauser said that the judge acted prematurely in setting a trial date, and that the company is deciding whether to file an appeal. He also said Generali would continue to participate “in good faith” in the work of the international commission, which is seeking to reach a global settlement of Holocaust insurance claims. Last month, Generali and three other insurance firms reached an agreement with the International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims that unpaid policies dating back to the Holocaust era should have interest and present-day currency values factored in when the policies are paid. While the exact amount of the outstanding claims is unknown, insurance industry analysts were quoted as saying it could total between $1 billion and $4 billion. The companies also accepted liability for policies issued before company assets were nationalized by the Communists in the postwar years. The next meeting of the commission is scheduled for June 24 in Jerusalem.