Martin Marootian and his wife, Seda, are among 12 plaintiffs who recently reached a $20 million settlement with New York Life Insurance Company.
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) — Martin Marootian displayed a grainy, black-and-white photograph taken in 1905 that shows 10 family members and friends.
He pointed out that eight were killed a decade later in what Armenians contend was an act of genocide by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Among them was his uncle, Setrak Cheytanian, and ever since then the family has been trying to collect death benefits from the uncle’s policy with New York Life Insurance Co.
Their ordeal may finally be over. Last month, Marootian was among 12 plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit who reached a tentative $20 million settlement with New York Life. On Thursday, a federal judge is expected to decide whether to approve the agreement.
Marootian, 88, had hoped the agreement — believed to be the first ever in connection with the often disputed massacre, and open to claims from survivors worldwide — would bring more recognition to a catastrophe that hasn’t been acknowledged by the United States.
“If we hadn’t done this, many Armenians would have been left out in the cold,” he said. “At least this way they are getting some money.”
However, some Armenian-Americans believe the agreement shortchanges the entire community.
“It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” said Ardy Kassakhian, executive director of the western region offices of the Armenian National Committee of America. “It’s a very emotional subject for many Armenians.”
“For $20 million they are buying silence and goodwill,” said Harut Sassounian, publisher of the California Courier, a weekly newspaper serving the estimated 100,000 Armenians in Southern California.
A full-page ad in the Courier urged readers to call for a jury trial that could lead to a larger monetary judgment.
New York Life sold about 8,000 policies in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 1880s, with less than half of those bought by Armenians. The company stopped selling insurance in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
The company said it located about one-third of the policyholders’ descendants to pay benefits. The rest of the policies languished because the remaining heirs could not be found, company vice president William Werfelman said.
“The parties are confident that this is a fair, reasonable and adequate settlement that the judge should feel comfortable approving,” he said.
The settlement would set aside about $11 million to pay claims by heirs of some 2,400 policyholders. About $3 million would go to Armenian charitable organizations, with the remainder to be used for legal fees and costs.
Marootian would receive about $250,000. He was born in New York in 1915 — the year that Armenians assert the Turkish regime began executing their ancestors for allegedly helping the invading Russian army during World War I. It is estimated that some 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923.
Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, rejects the genocide claim, insisting that Armenians were killed in civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
France and Russia are among 15 countries, along with a United Nations human rights panel, that have recognized the genocide. The United States has not made such a declaration.
Marootian’s mother and oldest sister were the only two people in the family photo who survived. They left for New York a year before the killing began, and Marootian’s uncle sent the policy — insuring him for 3,000 francs — with them.
The policy named no beneficiaries but Marootian’s mother, who died in 1982, often wrote to New York Life trying to collect the benefits. Each time, a different agent promised to resolve the claim.
“They could have given her a couple of hundred dollars during the Depression and it wouldn’t have come to this class-action today,” Marootian said. “It was their mistake.”