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California Law Lets Ex-slave Workers Sue Companies That Exploited Labor

California Gov. Gray Davis has signed into law a bill enabling survivors of World War II-era slave and forced labor to seek restitution in state courts.

The law allows the victims or their heirs to sue companies doing business in California that exploited their labor under the Nazi regime. It also extends the statute of limitations for filing suits to Dec. 31,2010.

The signing on Wednesday came one day before German companies accused of profiting from Nazi-era slave labor met in Washington with Jewish representatives in the latest round of meetings aimed at creating a multibillion-dollar fund for Holocaust survivors who have sued the companies in U.S. courts.

The firms are seeking assurances that they will not be subject to lawsuits after they agree to set up the fund. It therefore remains unclear what, if any, impact the state law would have on the outcome of the settlement.

On Thursday the negotiators made important progress on this issue, sources said.

Still unresolved are the questions of who would be eligible for payments from the fund and its ultimate size.

In a development that may increase the prospects of reaching a settlement by a Sept. 1 deadline, the two sides agreed to extend the next round of talks, slated to be held in Bonn in late August, to a full week.

In California, lawsuits are already pending against the giant German construction company Phillip Holzmann and Deutsche Lufthansa, as well as General Motors and Ford Motor Company and their German affiliates.

The new law will accelerate settlement negotiations in these cases and “give California greater negotiating power in order to make sure survivors are represented as aggressively as possible,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), the bill’s author.

His bill was opposed by the California Manufacturers Association, which argued that its provisions could be used against American companies whose subsidiaries were forcibly seized by the Nazi regime.

Attorney Lisa Stern, who helped draft the Hayden bill, estimates that as many as 3,000 plaintiffs in the state could advance claims against any of 10 to 20 companies that exploited Jewish and other laborers during the war.

As a result of an urgency clause, the law takes effect immediately.

(JTA Staff Writer Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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