Calif., WWII victims heirs reach accord with insurers

LOS ANGELES — Shortly before the first of two hearings to investigate the readiness of insurance companies to comply with California's Holocaust Registry Law, the state reached agreement with three of the companies.

Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush announced on Tuesday an agreement with Aegon, a Dutch insurance company.

A day later, just minutes before the start of a scheduled hearing in Los Angeles, agreements with two other Holocaust-era Dutch insurers, ING and Fortis, were announced.

Members of the California Holocaust Settlement Alliance used the term "groundbreaking" to describe the Aegon agreement.

"This is the first time I have seen a company act not to hide information, deny responsibility and pursue avenues to delay payments," Jona Goldrich, the chair of CHSA's executive advisory group and Gov. Gray Davis' liaison for Holocaust affairs, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Quackenbush, in a statement issued Wednesday, lauded the "desire of ING and Fortis, in my estimation, to be models of moral and corporate leadership."

The ING and Fortis agreements were announced before the start of a Los Angeles hearing that Quackenbush had called "to gauge exactly where they [insurance companies] are, and intend to be, with respect to complying" with a new California law.

A second hearing was scheduled yesterday in San Francisco.

Although four insurance companies, including Aegon, agreed to attend the hearings, eight others had to be subpoenaed, including ING (also known as Peerless) and Fortis. The agreements precluded Aegon, ING and Fortis from having to testify.

Eventually, all the companies must provide detailed Holocaust-era policyholder information in order to do business in California.

The agreements state that the companies will cooperate fully, plus contribute to a fund to assist victims of the Holocaust who live in California. Aegon agreed to contribute $1.2 million, with ING and Fortis teaming up for a $4.2 million joint contribution.

In a related development, the first private family lawsuit filed against a European insurer for failure to pay off on a Holocaust-era policy was settled out of court last month.

The settlement between members of the Stern family and Assicurazioni Generali of Italy "is a major breakthrough for all Holocaust insurance claims," said attorney William M. Shernoff, representing Stern family members from the United States, Israel and England.

None of the parties would divulge the size of the settlement, which was reported to the court Tuesday of last week.

The actual settlement fell far short of the $135 million sought, said Adolf Stern, 82, of Queens, N.Y., the lead plaintiff and a Holocaust survivor.

"They're not doing me a favor. They [Generali] are doing themselves a favor," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I have had a heart attack. I don't want to be aggravated all my life."

Family patriarch Moshe Stern, an affluent Czech wine and spirits producer, took out large insurance policies before World War II through the Prague office of Generali.

He subsequently perished at Auschwitz, but when his offspring tried to claim payment on the policies in 1945, Generali officials demanded a death certificate, which was never issued. Since then the Stern children and grandchildren have failed many times in their attempts to collect.

The Stern suit has set a historical precedent by upholding the right of California courts to consider claims by state residents against foreign insurers doing business in California.

Shernoff has filed seven similar lawsuits by private individuals in California against Generali. He believes they will also be settled by the end of the year.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent