Appeals Court Reverses over Armenian Suit: Heirs Can Seek Payment from Insurance Companies


SAN FRANCISCO (Associated Press) — A federal appeals court on Friday reversed itself and now says the heirs of Armenians killed in the Turkish Ottoman Empire can seek payment from companies that sold their relatives life insurance.

The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said a California law labeling the killings as a “genocide” does not conflict with US foreign policy, which the court said is unsettled on the issue.

The ruling was 2-1, the same vote the same judicial panel came to last year when it struck down the California law empowering the heirs to sue companies that sold life insurance policies to Armenians killed in Ottoman-era Turkey during World War I.

Last year, the same panel concluded that the US government has sided with the Turkish government and formally taken the position against labeling the killings as a genocide. Therefore, that panel concluded, California’s calling the event a genocide conflicted with US foreign policy, making the state law invalid.

But in a rare and stunning move on Friday, Judge Dorothy Nelson changed her mind and sided with Judge Harry Pregerson, which turned his 2009 dissenting view into law.

“We conclude that there is no express federal policy forbidding states to use the term ‘Armenian Genocide,’” Pregerson wrote.

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The ruling revived a lawsuit filed by heirs against three German insurers, including Munich Re AG.

“This was totally unexpected,” said attorney Brian Kabateck, who represents the Armenian heirs. “It’s a great victory for the Armenian people.”

Kabateck and other lawyers have filed similar lawsuits against New York Life Insurance Co. and French insurer AXA, which were settled in 2005 for a combined $37.5 million.

Judge David Thompson, who wrote the now-overturned majority opinion last year, said in dissent that former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush defeated congressional legislation that would have recognized an Armenian Genocide. Thompson said those presidential efforts show the United States has a clear foreign policy against recognizing the deaths as a genocide.

The majority opinion Friday called those efforts “informal presidential communications” and not official policy. The court said the insurance companies can file a request for a rehearing. The companies could also ask the US Supreme Court to consider the case.

Attorney Neil Michael Soltman, who represented the German insurance companies, didn’t return a phone call.