For immediate release: Aug 24, 2000

The Missouri Department of Insurance and General American Life Insurance Co. of St. Louis have agreed in principle to an estimated $55 million settlement for policyholders and a $120,000 fine for alleged deceptive sales practices. MDI Director Keith A. Wenzel said the proposal would provide relief to current and former holders of 251,000 whole and universal life policies issued from 1982 to 1996. Those include 28,102 whole life policyholders nationally —8,907 in Missouri —who bought coverage with so-called "vanishing premium" features.

The settlement hinges on final federal court approval of a class-action settlement that would govern policyholder restitution. General American and lawyers for the plaintiffs filed that proposed settlement today in St. Louis.

General American is the largest life and annuities insurer based in Missouri.

The MDI-General American agreement would close a department market conduct investigation, dating from 1995, of vanishing premium and other sales misrepresentations. That market conduct exam was separate from, but eventually dovetailed with the class-action lawsuits, which were filed in 1996 and 1997.

MDI alleged the vanishing premium violations took two forms:

  • General American and its agents misrepresented that life insurance policies would be paid up within a set time and premiums would "vanish." Instead, further premiums were necessary to keep the policies in force.
  • In other cases, so-called "churning" was combined with vanishing premium misrepresentations. Existing policyholders were convinced to convert their coverage into policies with a higher face value that supposedly would require few if any future premium payments. Instead, policyholders had to pay extra premiums on those policies.

Since the mid-1990s, state regulators and class-action litigation nationally have secured hundreds of millions of dollars in policyholder awards for "vanishing premium" violations by such insurers as MetLife, Prudential, Phoenix Home Life, Equitable Life, Connecticut General, Crown Life, Sun Life, American Family Mutual and even the Knights of Columbus.

The lawsuits and regulatory action materialized after companies began adapting to the low-inflation and -interest economy of the 1990s on policies sold under high-inflation and interest-rate assumptions of the previous decade.

Missouri in 1998 tightened its life insurance sales illustration laws, in part responding to the nationwide abuses.

The litigation against General American originally was filed in Massachusetts, Illinois and Mississippi, but was consolidated into a single action in 1997 in the federal Eastern Missouri District Court.

The MDI market conduct exam —an audit of an insurer's marketing and claims practices —legally is not complete until the judge enters the class-action case's final order, which will be incorporated into the MDI exam settlement. Under state law, the report itself is closed to the public until those actions occur.

At this point, policyholders who believe they are aggrieved should NOT contact the Department of Insurance about the proposed settlement. Policyholders with questions can contact the law firm of Milberg, Weiss, the New York City-based lead counsel for the plaintiffs, at 212-594-5300.General American has installed a toll-free number for policyholders —1-800-379-0821 —and another number for the hearing impaired —1-800-411-0075. Callers, however, will receive only a recorded message until a mailing is sent to all affected policyholders; at that time, the company will make consumer representatives available.

Each of the affected policyholders will receive a notice inviting comment on the settlement before the district court holds a fairness hearing. General American must take additional steps to find any policyholders who are not located immediately.

An administrator appointed by the chief plaintiffs' counsel would adjust claims and make financial distributions under the plan filed with the court. The fine of $120,000 would be payable to the state school fund.

Payment of the settlement and fine will NOT come from the $1.2 billion in proceeds from the sale last January of General American Life to Metropolitan Life. That $1.2 billion has been invested until a rehabilitation court approves its distribution over the next three years to policyholder-owners of General American on record before the sale.

Frequently asked questions about the sale and the proceeds are answered on the MDI website.

For further information, contact: Randy McConnell at (573) 526-4845.