(AP/Reuters) - The descendants of some 1.5 million Armenians who were killed nearly 90 years ago in the Turkish Ottoman Empire will share in a $20 million settlement of a lawsuit for unpaid life insurance benefits.
The settlement with New York Life Insurance Co. announced Wednesday will help bring justice to survivors of those killed during "a deliberate, systematic and government-controlled genocide that began in April 1915," said California’s state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who helped negotiate the agreement.
Although the case was brought in Southern California, which has the largest Armenian American population in the United States, the settlement is open to claims from survivors worldwide. "Many of the survivors of these policyholders live in California and I am gratified that due to the parties' hard work in this matter, justice will finally be served," Garamendi said.
Brian Kabateck, an attorney of Armenian descent who represented the plaintiffs, said the settlement is a step toward winning U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. "Hopefully, a large company like New York Life paying a settlement will go a long way toward achieving acknowledgment," Kabateck said. "Certainly the Armenian genocide deserves as much acknowledgment as the Holocaust and other tragedies of the 20th century."
The agreement comes nearly three years after an earlier $10 million deal to settle the lawsuit fell apart and sent both sides back to the negotiating table. Garamendi said the settlement involves about 2,400 insurance policies.
More than 1.5 million people were killed in 1915 and thousands more were deported as the Ottoman Empire fell apart at the start of World War I in what Armenians, some nations and many historians officially recognize as a genocide. Turkey denies that a genocide took place and argues that any killings in 1915 were part of partisan fighting in which Turks also suffered.
Attorney Mark Geragos, who is Armenian and represented the plaintiffs in the class-action federal lawsuit, said this is the first lawsuit of its kind settled in a U.S. court by a private entity. "New York Life really stepped up to the plate," he said.
Sy Sternberg, chairman and chief executive of New York Life, said the company was more than willing to settle the claims, having first tried to do so in 1915. "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," Sternberg said.
The company said it located about one-third of the heirs to policy holders and were able to pay them; the rest of the policies languished until now. Of the $20 million fund to be established, at least $3 million will go to charitable organizations involved with the interests of the Armenian community.
Geragos said the case also brought to light invaluable historical records on the people who died in the massacre. The records will be posted on a Web site available to families wanting to trace their ancestors' histories.
The agreement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder, who has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 15.
(Note to readers: New York Life has informed RFE/RL that information identifying policies under which claims, identified by a policyowner or insured, can be made will be posted at www.ArmenianInsuranceSettlement.com. The website should be up and running by late February 2004.)