Approval of Settlement Urged in Prudential Fraud Case
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
The New York Times
February 25, 1997
A hearing today to debate the pros and cons of a huge class-action settlement between the Prudential Insurance Company of America and millions of customers who were sold life insurance policies they did not need turned out to be more an endorsement of the plan than a critical review.
In Federal District Court here, those who drew up the settlement, a team from Prudential and representatives of insurance regulators in several states spoke, one after the other, about the virtues of the settlement. The plan provides at least $410 million in compensation for as many as eight million policyholders. Only a handful of lawyers contended that the plan offered too little and was so complicated that benefits might never be requested.
But the thrust of today's hearing came as no surprise. Prudential had taken the steam out of the strongest opposition to the settlement by agreeing last week to changes that had been demanded by regulators in Florida, Texas, California and Massachusetts and by paying the states nearly $35 million, some of which will be used to help policyholders file claims.
Melvyn I. Weiss, the lead lawyer in drawing up the settlement, described his handiwork as ''extraordinarily fair and reasonable.''
Reid Ashinoff, who heads the Prudential legal team, could not have agreed more. It was a plan, he said, that permitted ''anyone who has a legitimate claim'' to state the claim and ''to get relief.''
Michael Malakoff, a lawyer from Pittsburgh, argued that the plan offered little to customers. But he said it provided the company with protection from future claims. ''Prudential,'' he said, ''is using this to buy releases.''
Prudential has acknowledged that some of its agents, eager for new commissions, persuaded customers to cash in old policies to buy new, often more expensive ones, a process known as churning. Some insurance experts say the settlement could cost Prudential more than $1 billion. But no one will know for sure until policyholders begin filing claims.
Susan Y. Chin, a lawyer, spoke on behalf of her 68-year-old father who has two Prudential policies. He speaks only Chinese and did not know that he might have a claim until she told him about a television report on the company's deceptive sales methods.
She sought help on a special telephone line that Prudential has set up to help policyholders. But, she said, ''It's worthless.''
''They couldn't even tell me where this hearing today would be held,'' she said.
The settlement, she said, will not help her father. It offers things like loans and improved terms on policies to anyone who bought one of the 10.7 million policies the company sold between 1982 and 1995. But, she said, her father does not want further involvement with Prudential. The settlement offers the possibility of recovering several thousand dollars to those who are willing to follow a claims procedure involving several steps and some negotiating. But, Ms. Chin said, her father considers all that too stressful.
Mr. Weiss said he was very upset to hear that the special phone line was not working, and Prudential officials said they would fix it.
The presiding judge, Alfred M. Wolin, must approve the settlement before it takes effect. He invited lawyers to file additional arguments by Monday and indicated he hoped to reach a decision soon after that.
Reports about Prudential's sales practices have dominated news about the company for the last two years. And the company has been eager to resolve the matter. One measure of Prudential's concern is that Arthur F. Ryan, the company's chief executive, sat through the entire five hours of the hearing today.