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Armenian Insurance Claims Settled in Landmark Case

Sevag Tateosian

On January 27, 2004, the New York Life Insurance Company signed a “Settlement Agreement” with the descendants of policyholders who were killed in the Armenian Genocide. The agreement, which still has to be approved by United States District Court Judge Christina Snyder, ensures payment for twenty-four hundred open life insurance policies.

Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire up to 1915 had purchased between eight and nine thousand life insurance policies and twenty-four hundred of them remained unsettled until this year. After New York Life heard about the tragic events that took place in the former Ottoman Empire in 1915, they hired an Armenian attorney to locate policyholders and found a majority of them.

Although the official details of the settlement have not been finalized, what is known is that New York Life will pay $20 million to be distributed as follows: up to $11 million will be distributed to the heirs of the twenty-four hundred policy holders and $4 million will be paid to the four law firms which brought the class action suit to court. $3 million will be shared among the following Armenian charitable organizations: the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church Eastern United States and Canada, Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Apostolic Catholic Exarchate for Armenian Catholics in the United States and Canada, Armenian Missionary Association of America Inc., the Armenian Relief Society, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Armenian Educational Foundation. The final $2 million of the settlement was allocated for administrative fees to publicize the settlement and to find the heirs.

Vartkes Yeghiayan of Yeghiayan & Associates, who was one of the co-counsels in the case, in an interview on PRWEB Newswire said, “I know that this settlement will not bring back the life of even one Armenian child. But this settlement is important, because it symbolizes our resolve to achieve justice for our ancestors who were massacred in the Armenian Genocide.”
“The settlement is fair under the circumstances and payment is at a higher rate than that of the Holocaust,” said Brian Kabateck of Kabateck & Garris, another co-counsel in the case. “This settlement reignites discourse about the Genocide and brings attention to April 24,” he added.

Kabateck, who is a grandson of the late Fr. Nerses Odian of St. Paul Armenian Church in Fresno, was especially recruited for this case by Yeghiayan because of his strong background in lawsuits. He was excited to take part in this case because of his family’s experience with the Genocide. His grandfather’s family was completely wiped out by the Ottoman Turks. His grandmother, who was the only one in her family to escape the Genocide, witnessed the Turks massacring her family.

Mark Kassabian of Geragos and Geragos, was also optimistic about the settlement. “I feel great about the settlement,” he said. “No amount of money will ever compensate for genocide. This settlement is not about genocide, it is about insurance policies, and as far as insurance policies, it is great.”

Mark Geragos of Geragos and Geragos, who was also involved in this case and is a well-known attorney, was also supportive of the settlement. “This settlement with New York Life is an important first step toward seeking financial recovery for the losses resulting from the Armenian Genocide,” he said in an interview with PRWEB Newswire.
However, not everyone is excited about the outcome of the settlement. Many people are disappointed, confused or will not comment about the settlement.

The Armenian Assembly of America Inc (AAA Inc), one of America’s largest and most well-known Armenian-American grassroots organizations, has not expressed an opinion on the issue and is closely reviewing the settlement. Interestingly enough, the Armenian Assembly is a strong proponent for United States genocide recognition.

Another American-Armenian grassroots organization left out of the settlement is the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). “It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” said Ardashes Kassakhian, executive director of the ANC Western Region offices, in an interview with the Associated Press.

California Courier publisher Harut Sassounian, in a lengthy article published in the February 5, 2004 issue of the Courier, after obtaining a copy of the settlement, points out the same question. “Many Armenian American groups are wondering why they have not been included in the list of organizations selected to receive $3 million.”

Sy Sternberg, chairman and chief executive of New York Life, said in a press release, “When it became clear that many of our Armenian policyholders perished in the tragic events of 1915, New York Life hired an Armenian lawyer in the region to assist the heirs of those who died, so as to promptly pay claims. Time after time, the company would waive normal claims procedures and reinstate lapsed Armenian policies in order to pay the heirs.”

“Records confirm that the company succeeded in paying benefits in about a third of those Armenian policies. Our willingness today to resolve policies that may remain unpaid from that era shows that New York Life adheres to the same values of integrity and humanity that guided us then,” he added.

His comments, although somewhat reassuring to the Armenians, fail to say one word, the same word you or I will not find anywhere in the settlement. That word is Genocide! “Tragic events” is how New York Life refers to the Genocide. How can the attorneys approve a settlement that does not include the word Genocide in it?

If you can answer that question, you are ahead of me. I concede this settlement is not about genocide, but about those who lost their lives, lost it because of the genocide, and for that word not to be included anywhere in the settlement is upsetting to many.