January 28, 1999
Backing Up Their Claims
L.A. judge rules that Holocaust survivors and their heirs can sue European insurance companies in California courts
In a precedent-setting decision, a Los Angeles judge ruled on Monday that European companies can be sued in California courts for nonpayment of life insurance policies stemming from the Holocaust era.
The specific case involves a $135 million suit against the giant Generali Insurance Company (Assicurazioni Generali) of Trieste, Italy, but may be applicable to other European insurers and to more than 6,000 Holocaust survivors living in California.
"Let this landmark ruling be the shot heard around the world that it will not be business as usual for insurance companies accused of stonewalling Nazi victims," said attorney Lisa Stern.
She is a member of the Stern family of Los Angeles, which filed the $135 million suit a year ago on behalf of family members in this city, New York and Miami, as well as in Israel and England.
All are descendants of Moshe "Mor" Stern, a wealthy wine and spirits producer in prewar Hungary, who had six sons and a daughter. Between 1929 and 1939, he took out large insurance policies through the Prague office of Generali.
Moshe Stern, his wife and three of his sons perished in Auschwitz. When a surviving son tried to initiate a claim with Generali in June 1945, he was brusquely turned away. The family testified that Generali had stonewalled all requests since that time.
In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper rejected Generali's assertion that the company was not subject to the jurisdiction of a California court in a matter originating in a foreign country.
Cooper noted that a Generali-owned subsidiary does substantial business in California. She also cited the Holocaust Victims Insurance Act, introduced by state Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles, and passed by the California legislature last year, which specifically authorized state courts to deal with Stern-type cases.
Indicating the significance of the lawsuit, officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including JCRC Executive Director Michael Hirschfeld and Arthur Stern (no relation to Lisa), chair of the Federation's Holocaust Subcommittee, appeared in court to support the Stern case. In addition, California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush dispatched a private lawyer to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.
A trial date in the case is to be set on March 25.
William M. Shernoff, the lead attorney for the Stern family, said: "It is now apparent that California will lead the way in getting justice for Holocaust survivors in their insurance cases. This case could be tried before a jury as early as this summer."
Generali said it will appeal the judge's ruling.
"I am beside myself with happiness," attorney Lisa Stern said. "It's the ultimate thrill of victory."
To survivors and their kin, she said, the fight is about more than money: "The survivors I talk to don't care so much about the money that they may get as that they do not want those [insurance] companies to have the money they looted from the families who suffered so much."