Court paves way for Holocaust-era insurance claims

Judge Michael Mukasey said the case could go forward in the US Keystone

A United States court has rejected a bid by a Swiss and an Italian insurer to dismiss a lawsuit by Holocaust survivors seeking payments on Nazi-era policies.

This content was published on September 26, 2002 - 17:28

The ruling means that the case can now go ahead in the US.

Zurich Life and Assicurazioni Generali had challenged 12 class-action suits filed in Manhattan's federal court.

The two insurance companies claimed the US was not the right place to decide the case, saying that a European court or an international commission should settle the dispute.

Daniel Hoffmann, head of media relations at Zurich Life, said the insurer had not necessarily tried to have the case dismissed.

"We didn't actually say the case should be dismissed we just questioned whether this would be the right court to deal with the case," he told swissinfo.

Hoffmann added that Zurich Life might challenge the decision. "The case could go to trial or it could go to a settlement. But as we haven't even received the readout from our attorney what really happened, we are not really in a position to comment much," he added.

Private commission

Lawyers for the insurance companies also said that a private commission, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), was set up to deal with such cases.

However, the US district court judge, Michael Mukasey, rejected their arguments, ruling that the case could go forward in the US as many of the survivors and their heirs lived in New York and across America.

The judge added that the ICHEIC was not a suitable alternative for the resolution of the plaintiffs' claims.

He suggested there was a possible conflict of interest on the grounds that the commission was financially dependent on European insurance companies.

Big victory

Morris Ratner, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the ruling was a big victory for the tens of thousands of people whose parents or relatives perished in the Holocaust.

"Those people are the potential beneficiaries of insurance policies issued by Generali or Zurich Life," said Ratner.

Ratner added that he was not only seeking payoffs of known insurance policies from the Nazi era, but also a complete record of policies held by the insurers during the German campaign of genocide against Jews during the Second World War.

"There may be people, who are heirs or beneficiaries and who don't even know the policies existed," he said.

Melvyn Weiss, another lawyer filing the suit against the two insurers, said that a decision by a US court would carry greater weight around the world than a decision by a foreign court or committee.

"I am delighted with the decision," he said.

In August 1998, Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse and Jewish groups agreed the $1.25 billion settlement over Holocaust-era assets.

Some $800 million is being used to compensate the holders of dormant bank accounts and their heirs, with the rest intended for other victims of the Nazis such as forced labourers and repatriated refugees.

swissinfo with agencies

Holocaust Zurich Life

Holocaust victims and their heirs are seeking payments on Nazi-era policies.
Zurich Life and Assicurazioni Generali had challenged 12 class-action suits.
The US judge ruled that the case could now go ahead.

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