Panel of Eleven Federal Appeals Judges Hears Oral Argument on Armenian Genocide Era Insurance Recovery Suit
GLENDALE, CA — On Wednesday, December 14, four and a half years after a federal district court judge in Los Angeles first held that a California law extending the statute of limitations on Armenian genocide era insurance claims (California Code of Civil Procedure Section 354.4) was constitutional and not preempted by federal policy pursuant to the foreign affairs doctrine, an en banc panel of eleven Ninth Circuit appellate judges in San Francisco heard oral arguments from the parties on the same issue before taking the matter under submission. Plaintiffs-Appellees were represented by K. Lee Boyd of Los Angeles law firm Schwarcz, Rimberg, Boyd Rader LLP, Vartkes Yeghiayan of the Yeghiayan Law Firm, and Mark Geragos of Geragos Geragos. A video recording of the full oral argument can be accessed here: www.centerarnews.com
The case is Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung, originally filed by descendants of Armenian Genocide victims in 2003, and names as defendants German insurance companies Victoria Versicherung AG, Ergo Versicherungsgruppe AG and parent company Munich Re. The action accuses defendants of selling insurance policies to Armenians prior to 1915, when the government of the Ottoman Turkish Empire initiated a genocidal campaign against Armenians living in Turkey. In the aftermath of the massacres and deportations which resulted in the death of over 1.5 million Armenians, survivors were scattered far and wide around the world. Defendants failed to provide information about the insurance policies issued to Armenians and refused to honor claims. As a result, thousands of policies remain unpaid, divesting beneficiaries, heirs, and rightful successors of the benefits due to them. Defendants’ continued election not to pay claims on these policies thwarts even the smallest ! opportunity for genocide victims to pass some legacy on to their survivors.
The League of Nations, in the 1920’s, asked insurance companies doing business in the Ottoman Empire to provide the names of Armenian policy holders. The League of Nations stated that Armenian orphans were in desperate condition and could benefit from the policies that their parents had obtained, and therefore requested companies to issue a list of names. Victoria was the only insurance company to identify almost 300 Armenian policy holders. This lawsuit is brought on behalf of surviving heirs of those policies.
The case mirrors other successful actions against insurance firms filed in the Los Angeles federal court: Kyurkjian et al. v. AXA et al., Case No. 2:02-cv-01750; Ouzounian et al. v. AXA et al.,Case No. 2:05-cv-02596; and Marootian v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., Case No. 2:99-cv-12073. The consolidated actions against AXA and N.Y. Life both resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements benefiting the families and beneficiaries of genocide victims.
The district court’s 2007 decision upholding the California statute has been the subject of two previous three-judge panel decisions at the Ninth Circuit. In 2010, the most recent panel decision concluded “that there is no express federal policy forbidding the state to use the term Armenian Genocide,” and therefore affirmed the decision of the district court that the statute is not preempted.
For a full hour on Wednesday morning in a San Francisco courtroom, the eleven appellate judges fired questions at counsel for both parties, seeking clarity on a variety of issues from conflict and field preemption and their effect on the California statute to possible war-time exemption clauses in insurance policies. Ms. Boyd vociferously argued that the court should uphold the “constitutional equilibrium between federal and state power” and allow the statute to stand because California was acting within its traditional responsibility in providing for payment of “garden-variety” insurance claims. She argued that the statute simply extends the statute of limitations for a group of people with special needs in establishing the elements of contract claims. Mr. Geragos further noted that the statute should simply be characterized as extending the limitations period for a particular class of plaintiffs.
California federal and state legislators, as well as the states of California, Hawai’i, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Rhode Island, filed amicus briefs supporting Plaintiffs-Appellees and the state statute.
Given the success of the similar cases of AXA and N.Y. Life and the increasing awareness of the historical plight of Armenians, proponents of justice for victims of human rights violations and their heirs would welcome an en banc affirmance of the 2010 panel decision and the district court’s original 2007 decision.
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