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Knights of Columbus to settle

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal benefit society, has reached an agreement to settle a class action lawsuit that accused the society and its insurance agents of using misleading life insurance sales practices.

"The proposed settlement allows us to resolve the lawsuit on terms that protect all our members and vindicate the Knights of Columbus and its fraternal agents."

The lawsuit stemmed primarily from allegations that the society and its agents misled policyholders about the amount and duration of the premiums they would have to pay for life insurance — the "vanishing premium" sales tactic — for policies sold, serviced, and administered between Jan. 1, 1980, and Sept. 15, 2000.

The proposed settlement, valued at almost $23 million, is still subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The settlement would automatically provide an accidental death insurance policy worth 7 percent of the face value of the original life insurance policy to all members of the class.

In lieu of that option, policyholders can instead choose to take part in an alternative dispute resolution system. Under this process, policyholders will be able to submit individual claims to a resolution team that would then determine whether the claim justified a monetary award.

According to Stuart Guber, a lawyer with Berger & Montague and co-lead counsel for the Knights' policyholders, successful claims based on the use of misleading sales materials and promises of vanishing premiums would be refunded one year's premiums.

When used illegally, vanishing premium schemes involve false statements by agents who claim that the investment component in a permanent life insurance policy will perform so well that within a certain number of years a policyholder will not have to pay premiums. In reality, the performance of the underlying investments cannot be precisely predicted.

"The proposed settlement allows us to resolve the lawsuit on terms that protect all our members and vindicate the Knights of Columbus and its fraternal agents," says Paul Devin, executive vice president for legal affairs for the Knights.

"While we believe the claims are meritorious, the proposed settlement is a reasonable resolution to the litigation."

The Knights' sales materials were pretty conservative," says Guber. "The projections generally only ran over the 'vanish date' by one or two years."

That means that the award of one year's premiums will, in many cases, represent a complete refund of the premiums paid after the date they were supposed to vanish, according to Guber.

Awards for the victims of more egregious actions by Knights' insurance agents, such as forgery or fraud, would not be limited, says Guber. "While we believe the claims are meritorious, the proposed settlement is a reasonable resolution to the litigation," he says.

While the lawsuit was pending, both the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance and the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities, and Health Care Administration issued reports praising the ethical sales and marketing practices employed by the Knights of Columbus.

A hearing on the fairness of the proposed settlement has been scheduled for early May 2002, and informational packets will be mailed to potential members of the class throughout January 2002.

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