French Insurance Co. Agrees to Pay $17 Million to Genocide Heirs

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French Insurance Co. Agrees to Pay $17 Million to Genocide Heirs

By Harut Sassounian

Publisher, The California Courier

October 3,2005

The French Insurance Company Axa agreed to pay $17 million to descendants of life insurance policyholders who perished during the Armenian Genocide.

This announcement was made by Mark Geragos, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, during the Oct. 2 banquet of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies honoring Federal Judge Dickran Tevrizian.

Geragos, along with attorneys Vartkes Yeghiayan and Brian Kabateck, had filed a class action lawsuit in a California federal court against Axa for failing to pay death benefits for the insurance policies purchased by Armenians in Turkey prior to the Armenian Genocide. Judge Tevrizian mediated the $17 million settlement which will be disbursed as follows: Up to $11 million for the heirs of close to 11,000 life insurance policyholders; $3 million for various Armenian charities; and $3 million for attorneys’ fees. A French-Armenian charitable group will process and pay the claims. Any funds leftover after all claimants are paid would be turned over to the French-Armenian charity.

The Axa settlement follows a similar agreement with New York Life Insurance Company in early 2004. New York Life agreed to pay $20 million which was to be disbursed as follows: Up to $11 million for the heirs of 2,400 life insurance policyholders who perished during the Armenian Genocide; $3 million for nine Armenian-American charitable and religious organizations; $2 million for administrative expenses; and $4 million for attorney’s fees.

In a lengthy interview with the French Armenian magazine, Nouvelles d’ Armenie (September 2005 issue), Yeghiayan provided several intriguing details regarding the activities and irresponsible conduct of L’Union insurance company which was purchased by Axa in 1996.

L’Union started selling insurance policies in the Ottoman Empire in the 1870 ’s and continued to do so until 1931. Simon Kayserlyan was the Director of the 51 offices of the firm in Turkey. According to a letter sent by L’Union to the French Foreign Ministry in 1922, the company had sold 10,899 life insurance policies by the time of the Armenian Genocide.

In that 1922 letter, L’Union disclosed that it risked losing 42 million French Francs or $8 million as a result of the deaths of its Armenian policyholders. The letter also said that not meeting its obligations to the perished Armenians would tarnish the company’s reputation and prestige.

While New York Life made some attempts in the aftermath of the Genocide to locate and pay those entitled to receive death benefits, L’Union categorically refused to make any payments. In the early 1920’s when French-Armenian refugee centers in Paris wrote to L’Union asking to see the list of Armenian policyholders, the company reportedly refused, saying that such private information could not be divulged to outside parties.

In 1928, the High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations asked several insurance companies to disclose the list of their Armenian clients, explaining that the heirs of some insurance policyholders were children living in extremely destitute conditions in refugee camps and that funds from the insurance benefits would considerably ameliorate their situation. L ’Union reportedly responded by saying that it could not comply with the request, as it was unable to tell which of its clients were Armenians.

Furthermore, the company made impossible demands from the families of perished individuals in order to avoid paying them. For example, in a June 18, 1925 letter, L’Union told an Armenian claimant to provide a death certificate and a notarized document from the Turkish Consulate in Athens proving his relationship to the deceased policyholder. Whereas New York Life accepted the documents provided by the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, L’ Union refused to accept such documents, demanding that the survivors of the Genocide return to Turkey to obtain the necessary certificates from Turkish courts. As a result, not a single Armenian policyholder got a penny from this company. After 1945, the company came up with a new argument for refusing all requests for payment. It said that due to the 30-year statute of limitations, it was no longer obligated to make any payments for policies written prior to 1915.

The Axa settlement has a significant advantage over the one with New York Life. Thanks to the efforts of the three Armenian attorneys, Judge Tevrizian and Axa executives, there is a clear reference to the Armenian Genocide in the text of the Axa settlement, whereas in the New York Life agreement, the Armenian Genocide is merely referred to as “the tragic events of 1915.”

The October issue of the French magazine, L’Expansion, reported that the next insurance company to be sued by the Armenian lawyers for non-payment of Genocide era insurance claims would be the German firm, Victoria. There is also talk of a lawsuit being filed against the British insurance company, Gresham, and various German banks that operated in Turkey and had taken deposits from Armenians in that country prior to the Genocide.

The next legal step would be to sue the Turkish government for its illegal confiscation of the personal and real properties of Armenians in Turkey after the Genocide.

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