After a Claims Facility Has Closed, Bill Would Allow Holocaust-Era Suits Against Insurers (July 18)

A House bill, HR-890, would allow Holocaust survivors and their families to file suit against European insurers for failing to pay on policies.

The issue appeared to be resolved by the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, created in August 1998, under which European companies, Holocaust survivors’ representatives, and U.S. regulators signed a Memorandum of Understanding

The commission’s aim was “to identify claimants, locate unpaid insurance policies, and assist Holocaust survivors and their families in resolving claims.” See Lawrence S. Eagleburger and M. Diane Koken with Catherine Lillie, “Finding Claimants and Paying Them: The Creation and Workings of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims”(2007)(available here).

The commission officially closed its payment facility in 2007, having addressed 48,000 claimants and paying about $306 million.

Proponents of the new proposal, the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2011, complain that the commission paid only a fraction of the policies sold to Jews living in Europe around the time of the Holocaust. Other critics say the process favored the insurance companies.

Opponents of the bill, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, are worried that the proposal will undermine the work done by the Commission.

According to the New York Times, a recent U.S. State Department statement echoed these concerns: “Lawsuits by the survivors could not only disrupt prior agreements with European governments but might also have a negative impact on other reparation agreements growing out of the Holocaust as well.” Eric Lichtblau, “Holocaust Survivors Again Seek Insurance Claims,” N.Y. Times (June 1)(available here).

The Times article also notes that both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations opposed proposals to allow suits. While the U.S. government has not forbid individuals from filing claims against European insurance companies, it has encouraged dismissal of such claims.

In its findings, the House proposal cites America Insurance Ass'n Inc. v. Garamendi, 539 U.S. 396 (2003), where the U.S. Supreme Court notes, “There is, of course, no question that at some point an exercise of state power that touches on foreign relations must yield to the National Government’s policy.” In fact, the case preempts state laws allowing action by state commissioners against foreign insurers in Holocaust insurance cases.

The House bill would enforce state laws requiring insurers to disclose information regarding Holocaust-era insurance claims despite existing U.S. foreign policy or executive agreements.

Bill sponsor Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R., Fla. said in the Times article, “This will not usurp anybody’s authority,” adding, “This is about giving the survivors their day in court. We’ve already waited too long.” There are 31 co-sponsors of HR-890.

Similar bills, such as the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, have been proposed without success.

--Blaire Babcock, CPR Intern