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Ruling supports Armenian Genocide suits

Claims target unpaid insurance benefits for relatives of victims.

December 15, 2010|By Bill Kisliuk and Joe Piasecki

The descendants of Armenian Genocide victims won a significant victory Friday when a federal appeals court ruled that they should be allowed to sue to recoup unpaid insurance benefits related to the atrocity.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacates the same panel's August 2009 ruling that lawsuits filed in state court were an unconstitutional intrusion into federal authority.

In 2003, Vazken Movsesian, a priest at St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale, and thousands of other heirs of the 1.5 million Armenians killed between 1915 and 1923, sued several insurers in Los Angeles County Superior Court. They claimed breach of contract against the insurers for failing to pay descendants of genocide victims who bought policies between 1875 and 1923.

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The lawsuits were filed under authority of a state law sponsored years ago by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) when he served in the state Senate.

Two insurance companies, New York Life Insurance Co. and AXA, S.A., previously agreed to settle the cases for $37.5 million, according to Brian Kabateck, an attorney for Movsesian and others.

The case, Movsesian vs. Victoria Verischerung, has continued against two German insurance companies.

"It's the first time that an appellate court has recognized in such detail all of the efforts of genocide [recognition] in one place, and as a practical matter it gives the ability to seek reparations," said Mark Geragos, a lead attorney for the case and resident of La Cañada Flintridge.

Lawsuits have also been filed against a bank and the Republic of Turkey, said Geragos, and others may follow before the end of the year.

"I've argued for a long time the real 'R' word now should not be 'recognition,' it should be 'reparations,' making this case ground zero for the Armenian movement and cause," Geragos said.

Last year, the federal court panel said the lawsuit should be tossed out because only the federal government, not states, can craft policies that affect foreign affairs. But the court subsequently agreed to rehear the case, and on Friday, the panel voted 2-1 to reverse its 2009 decision, with Judge Dorothy Nelson changing her opinion.

"The whole argument as previously formulated is somewhat nonsensical. They were calling inaction [by Congress to officially recognize the genocide] a negative action. Nobody disputes the fact that a million and a half Armenians were slaughtered, except maybe Turkey and their agents," said Geragos.

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