October 6, 2006
An Italian insurance giant will pay tens of millions of additional
dollars to the heirs of Holocaust victims who once held policies with
the company, according to settlement papers filed in three class actions
against Assicurazioni Generali in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
The settlement has come under criticism from some who say Generali has
been able to avoid paying all but a fraction of what it owes.
The settlement calls on the company to pay the claims currently pending
before a London-based commission set up to deal with Holocaust-era
insurance claims. The $100 million Generali gave to the commission,
called ICHEIC, in 2000 has already been exhausted and additional claims
remain, according to the settlement agreement.
The settlement will also allow victims and their heirs to submit new
claims directly to the company through February 2007.
Although the settlement agreement does not say how much money Generali
will have to pay to settle the new and existing claims, two sources
close to the case said more than $25 million will likely be needed to
cover them. The agreement also allows for the lawyers involved to
inspect Generali’s old records, a source said.
Generali’s policies for life and dowry insurance and annuities were sold
to Jewish communities across Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. The
plaintiffs claim the company seized the assets belonging to Jews and
others who were murdered. The company has intentionally thwarted their
efforts to be compensated over the last 60 years, they claim.
The company, based in Trieste, has argued, among other things, that it
is no longer responsible for the accounts in question and that the
assets backing those policies were largely seized by communist regimes.
Generali maintains that it is settling for “humanitarian reasons and to
honor the memory of its insureds who were the victims of Nazi
persecution,” according to the settlement agreement.
“Generali is pleased to reaffirm its commitment to ICHEIC and to have
resolved these class actions so that more of its former insureds and
their heirs can quickly receive payments,” an attorney representing
Generali, Peter Simshauser, said in a statement yesterday.
The lawsuits date back to 1997. The lawsuits suffered a serious setback
in 2004, when a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed them, ruling that
the claims should proceed through the commission process. The cases have
been pending before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had yet
to rule on an appeal of the dismissal.
The settlement, filed in August in federal court in Manhattan, had gone
unreported. No judge has yet approved the settlement.
Generali still faces more than 20 Holocaust-related lawsuits brought by
individual plaintiffs and one class-action lawsuit that has not yet been
certified, a source close to the case said. The 25-page settlement
agreement stipulates that if more than 300 claimants decide to opt out
of the settlement, Generali can back out as well.
One legal observer expressed dismay at the settlement, saying it will
prevent a public accounting of what Generali did with the accounts of
those who died in the Holocaust.
“The world needs to know what happened,”a law professor at Fordham
University, Thane Rosenbaum, who has written extensively about
restitution, said. “This is an entity that cheated and lied to its
policy holders, took advantage of the extraordinary circumstances of a
mass murder and genocide for its own institutional profit and gain and
then wasn’t honorable enough to do what is morally right and necessary.”
Mr. Rosenbaum said that court proceedings in this case were especially
relevant to survivors and their heirs because life insurance and
annuities, often called the “poor man’s Swiss bank account” had been so
commonly held across Eastern Europe.
One man who is suing Generali, Thomas Weiss, called the settlement “a
beautiful arrangement for the insurance company” and said he would press
forward with his single lawsuit. Mr. Weiss, of Miami Beach, Fla., said
his father, an Auschwitz survivor, had claimed to put an unusually large
amount, $50,000, in a Generali policy in 1937.
According to the agreement, Generali will also pay up to$3.25 million in
attorney fees and extra fees to several of plaintiffs.