Like true love, a general release lasts forever

August 26, 2019 | Evan H. Krinick | Appeals

Philosophically speaking, nothing lasts forever. Of course, romantics will tell you that true love lasts forever. In the world of litigation, the general release is the equivalent of true love – it never loses its power and force.

A general release is a document that frees a person or business from ever being sued about a particular issue. General releases are written to be as broad as possible in an attempt to cover any party that might be involved in the dispute and any claim, demand, right (and more), known or unknown that exists now or in the future that may give rise to a lawsuit.

A court case decided this summer involving the Holocaust, stolen art work and disputes from decades ago illustrates the long lasting impact of a general release.

The story begins in 1933 when Paul Westheim, a noted Jewish art critic, fled Nazi Germany for Paris and left his art collection of over 3,000 pieces in the hands of Charlotte Weidler, an art dealer in Berlin. During World War II, Mr. Westheim fled from France to Spain and then Portugal before ultimately settling in Mexico. During this time, he communicated with Ms. Weidler, albeit in code. While in Mexico, he married Marianna Frenk. Eventually, the artwork disappeared.

As to be expected, the fate of the artwork is disputed. Ms. Weidler’s sister originally stated that the art collection was destroyed. Ms. Frenk’s descendants claim that Ms. Weidler stole the collection and sold it after Mr. Westheim died in 1963.

In 1973, one of the paintings from the collection appeared in a gallery in New York City. Ms. Frenk started a lawsuit against Ms. Weidler for damages and possession of all items in the art collection.

In 1974, the lawsuit was discontinued and Ms. Frenk signed a typical general release discharging Ms. Weidler from “. . . all manner of actions, causes of action, suits . . . against Ms. Weidler, which [Ms. Frenk] ever had, now have, or which [Ms. Frenk] can, shall, or may have . . . by reason of any matter . . . from the beginning of the world to [today]”.  In consideration for the release, Ms. Frenk was paid $7,500.

In 2010, Ms. Frenk’s daughter learned that Ms. Weidler’s family continued to possess some of the artwork from the collection and had possessed other items prior to their sale at auction. In 2013, Ms. Frenk’s daughter brought a new lawsuit seeking the return of the artwork and damages.

After six years of litigation and two appeals the case was dismissed. Ultimately, the general release in 1973 prevented any attempt to assert claims related to the artwork collection. Plaintiff’s attempt to limit the scope of the 1973 release to one painting, and to claim that the release was procured by fraud, among other things, were all found to be without merit.

Many answers are lost to history. We will never know the circumstances that led to Ms. Frenk accepting $7,500 in return for a complete and general release of all claims to an artwork collection of more than 3,000 items. But what is not lost to history is the release itself, which maintains its power for all eternity.

This article is inspired by Frank v. Solomon, (Appellate Division, First Department, June 11, 2019) affirming Supreme Court, New York County, September 7, 2018).

This article appeared in the August 23-29, 2019 issue of Long Island Business News. ©2019 Long Island Business News.

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