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A lawsuit accuses a European insurer of being involved in a scheme to lure some of the estimated 20,000 Holocaust survivors living in California into relinquishing their right to settle potentially valuable claims under insurance policies issued before World War II ( Haberfeld v. Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A., Los Angeles Superior Court, Case No. BC250565). The complaint, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A. of sending the survivors an intentionally misleading “voluntary payment form letter” that tries to get recipients to give up their rights to seek damages against the insurer under California’s Holocaust Victims Insurance Act. The plaintiff, Holocaust-era survivor Felicia Spirer Haberfeld, was offered $500 in exchange for her rights under her late husband’s life insurance policy and her deceased daughter’s dowry policy, both issued by Generali. THE POLICIES According to the complaint, Assicurazioni Generali issued a life insurance policy worth $7,523 to Haberfeld’s late husband, Alfons, in 1936. In 1938, the insurer issued the Haberfelds’ only child a dowry policy worth $3,009, payable upon her marriage, her death or on Jan. 1, 1957, whichever occurred first. Haberfeld alleges that her husband purchased other Generali policies that have not been acknowledged by the insurer. In August 1939, Haberfeld and her husband left their home in Poland to take a three-week business trip to New York City. The Haberfelds left their 2-year-old daughter with her maternal grandmother. Two days before the couple was due to arrive back in Poland, the British Navy intercepted their vessel and diverted it to England because Germany had invaded Poland. According to the complaint, the German army confiscated the Haberfelds’ mansion and their daughter was taken to a concentration camp, where she died. The Haberfelds traveled from England to the United States and were detained on Ellis Island until sponsored off the island by a family friend. All of the Haberfelds’ possessions, including their insurance documentation, were in Poland. In 1948, the Haberfelds settled in California. According to the complaint, in 1957 Alfons wrote to Generali asking for documentation and benefits under the policies. Generali allegedly denied liability based on the nationalization of its Polish branch office and advised the Haberfelds to apply to the Polish National Office of Insurance for benefits. Alfons then wrote to the Federal Office of Polish Insurance, which referred him back to Generali, according to the complaint. “On several occasions during the ensuing years, Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld made additional attempts to obtain insurance policy information from Generali, but to no avail,” the complaint says. “Contrary to Generali’s duty to make an effort to locate beneficiaries of Holocaust-era life insurance policies, Generali instead, for many years, actively concealed the existence of the insurance policies.” SETTLEMENT OFFER After Alfons’ death in 1970, Felicia Haberfeld retained counsel and continued to seek benefits under the policies. In April 2000, she wrote Generali requesting information on the policies. Generali forwarded Felicia’s claim to the Internal Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). The ICHEIC informed Haberfeld that it was “unfamiliar” with Generali. In January 2001, Generali sent Haberfeld a “voluntary payment form letter,” which offered her $500 in exchange for a release of all her rights under the two policies and a release of any bad faith claims against Generali. The insurer did not inform Haberfeld’s counsel of the form letter and settlement offer, the complaint says. ICHEIC According to the complaint, ICHEIC is a voluntary private organization established to resolve unpaid Holocaust insurance claims. Charter members include American and European insurance regulators, nongovernmental Jewish organizations and five major European insurers: Allianz, Generali, AXA, Winterthur and Zurich. “Generali claims that its settlement offer is based on criteria formulated by ICHEIC and suggests that ICHEIC is some type of official governmental or international agency with exclusive ‘jurisdiction’ to resolve Holocaust-era insurance claims,” the complaint says. “ICHEIC operates in secret, allowing no public access to its meetings, and is totally funded by its insurer members. Its purpose was to create a voluntary mechanism to resolve Holocaust-era insurance claims against participating European insurers.” In the ICHEIC claims process, its member insurers directly handle inquiries and decide whether to accept or deny a claim. To date, the member insurers are denying a “vast majority” of the claims; denial rates have been reported as high as 90 percent, according to the complaint. The complaint says ICHEIC has spent more than $30 million in administrative expenses and has asked its insurer members for an additional $60 million for additional administrative expenses. In contrast, the ICHEIC has paid Holocaust survivors and their heirs only about $3 million, according to the suit. RELIEF SOUGHT The complaint seeks an order certifying the class, a preliminary and permanent injunction restraining Generali from engaging in the unfair business practices and false advertising alleged in the complaint and an order allowing class members who have entered into the ICHEIC settlement to rescind their settlement. The suit also seeks an order that Generali has waived all confidentiality concerning the California settlements. Counsel for Haberfeld are William M. Shernoff, Michael J. Bidart, Jeffery Isaac Ehrlich, Douglas M. Carasso and Evangeline F. Garris of Shernoff Bidart & Darras in Claremont, Calif., and Lisa Stern of the Law Office of Lisa Stern in Los Angeles. � Copyright 2001 Mealey Publications, Inc.

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