Disappointment persists in insurance-claims battle

When officials of Assicurizioni Generali failed to show up at a hearing last week to address unpaid claims to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, Dziunia Eichenholz-Goop shook her head in disappointment.

Though the Polish-born survivor does not have a personal connection to the Italian insurance company, her parents, she said, had two policies with a company called Phoenix.

"When I hear answers like this today, I don't have a lot of hope," the Moraga resident said, echoing a general feeling of pessimism among survivors and their family members that insurance policies will ever be redeemed.

At a public hearing in San Francisco Thursday of last week, California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush read the names of Generali officials who had been subpoenaed to appear after shunning three separate opportunities to testify voluntarily.

He named Giorgio Balzer, Ricardo Nicolini, John J. Digregoria, Christopher J. Carnicelli…and no one came forward.

"This shows defiance of the regulatory authority of the state of California and it's going to have to be dealt with very, very severely," said Quackenbush, sitting at a table flanked by members of his staff.

But while Generali did not send a representative to last week's hearing, Winnifred Homer-Smith, a representative of Deans & Homer, Generali's managing agent for California, did appear.

Sitting next to her attorney, former federal prosecutor Joseph Russoniello, Homer-Smith said she has no knowledge of the way Generali handled claims before and during World War II.

"We're watching this with great interest," she said. "It's a very complicated and disturbing matter."

Asked by Quackenbush whether she would still handle products from a company that has "shown contempt for the regulatory process," Homer-Smith said she did not yet have enough information to make a decision.

Homer-Smith's answers did not satisfy Eichenholz-Goop, who sat in the gallery of the hearing room at 45 Fremont St., the building that houses the Department of Insurance's legal division.

"Of course she doesn't know the details, but doesn't she know something?" the survivor asked. "Doesn't she know right from wrong?"

Though she does not have a Generali policy, Eichenholz-Goop attended last week's investigatory hearing as a symbolic act. "I like the idea that somebody is starting to do something, even though it's late," she said.

The hearing comes on the heels of several others like it held in California over recent months.

The hearings take place as a multi-billion-dollar federal class-action lawsuit gets under way against 15 European companies, some of which do business in the United States and all of which are believed to have major assets here.

While other companies did not show up at past hearings, Quackenbush subpoenaed Generali "because Generali wrote 80 percent of the insurance business that netted profits at the expense of human life and human suffering from the Nazi occupation during World War II."

Almost 1,000 people, he said, have called a Department of Insurance hotline claiming that they or their family members may have insurance policies outstanding from the Italian company. It has a branch licensed by Quackenbush's department.

Generali's defiance of the subpoenas, the commissioner said last week, could be interpreted as evidence of the evasive manner in which survivors' claims have been handled by the company over the past 50 years. And he threatened actions that include revoking the company's business license. The company's assets in the state amount to $22 million.

Generali has said it cannot meet in front of the media because it is a defendant in the federal class-action lawsuit. In a statement, the company said, it has been "working in good faith" with many state insurance commissioners and the Holocaust Subcommittee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

"It is unfortunate that Commissioner Quackenbush opted to serve subpoenas rather than simply ask for a private meeting," the statement said.

That Generali did not send officials to last week's hearing came as no surprise to most in attendance. Just days before the hearing, attorneys representing the company filed two legal actions in an attempt to avoid appearing before the commissioner. A federal judge rejected both.

One action charged Quackenbush and his department with violating Generali's civil rights by subpoenaing them to appear.

Said Ron Smetana, whose father is still trying to collect on his own late father's insurance policy, "It's sort of ironic, isn't it?"

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.