By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Before the Genocide, thousands of Armenians living in the Ottoman
Empire bought life insurance from American and European companies, so
that after their death, their heirs would receive a lump sum payment.
Regrettably, many of these companies refused to keep their end of the
bargain when Armenian policyholders perished along with their entire
families during the course of the Genocide. In most cases, no next of
kin was left behind to file an insurance claim on behalf of the
victims. A few families who did file a claim were turned down due to
the lack of proper paperwork. Clearly, these companies broke their
contractual obligations and enriched themselves by keeping the funds
owed to the heirs of insured genocide victims.
Almost a century later, the State of California stepped in to restore
justice to the wronged policyholders. Considering the tragic and
unnatural circumstance of these deaths, the State approved two
successive extensions to the statute of limitations in 2000 and 2011,
to allow the heirs of genocide victims additional time to file claims
against delinquent insurance companies.
Recognizing the negative publicity that such a lawsuit would generate,
the New York Life and AXA Insurance companies quickly reached out of
court settlements and paid a total of $37.5 million to the heirs of
Armenian policyholders and charitable organizations. In contrast,
German insurance companies Victoria and ERGO, backed by the Turkish
government, decided to continue ducking their legal and moral
responsibilities towards their ill-fated Armenian policyholders and
refused to settle their long overdue claims. The German firms demanded
that the lawsuit filed against them in 2003 be dismissed because the
California statute included a reference to the Armenian Genocide,
which allegedly conflicts with the foreign policy of the federal
government on this issue.
A highly unusual series of court decisions ensued after Federal Judge
Christina Snyder’s rejection in 2007 of the German insurance
companies’ motion to dismiss. In 2009, a three-judge panel of the
federal appeals court initially sided with the German companies, but
then reversed itself in 2010, finding no legal problems with the
California statute. Earlier this year, the German companies appealed
once again, this time to a larger panel of 11 federal judges. That
hearing, granted on November 7, is to be held in San Francisco during
the week of December 12.
Rehearing this case for the third time is unnecessary because the
California statute does not violate federal government’s stand on the
Armenian Genocide. Indeed, there is no federal policy that bans states
from recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Not a single complaint was
lodged by any federal official, while more than 40 states adopted
resolutions acknowledging the Genocide. In fact the California statute
is in line with the federal government’s clear record on this issue.
One should not forget that the U.S. House of Representatives adopted
two resolutions in 1975 and 1984 recognizing the Armenian Genocide,
and Pres. Reagan issued a Presidential Proclamation on this subject in
1981. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department recognized the Armenian
Genocide in a document filed with the World Court in 1951, citing the
Armenian mass killings as one of the "outstanding examples of the
crime of genocide."
Even though this latest appeal has absolutely no legal merit, the
consequences of a negative court decision would not only harm the
interests of life insurance claimants, but more importantly, the
collective interests of the Armenian people, should the federal
appeals court find California’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide
to be in conflict with the federal government’s foreign policy. Such a
ruling would negate several decades of Armenian-American political
activism by reversing all the resolutions on the Armenian Genocide
adopted by more than 40 American states.
The federal appeals court should rule in favor of the Armenian
plaintiffs. The court could also uphold the California statute by
separating the insurance aspect of the case, which is a prerogative of
the states, from the unrelated issue of State vs. Federal powers on
Genocide recognition. Should the judges rule against the California
statute, however, the Armenian-American community would have no choice
but to appeal that verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is one issue here that is crystal clear: the federal court
should force the German insurance companies to make good on their
contractual obligations to all policyholders, particularly those who
are genocide victims!