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New York Life settles Armenian class action lawsuit

New York Life Insurance Co. has settled a class action lawsuit over non-payment of claims to the families of Armenians who were killed in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. The settlement was announced on April 11, 2001.

As part of the settlement, New York Life has agreed to track down heirs of beneficiaries of 2,186 life insurance policies with outstanding death benefits, paying 10 times the policies' total face value, which is around $1.2 million. The company also will contribute $3 million to Armenian civic organizations in the United States.

New York Life says it had a total of about 3,300 Armenian life insurance policies sold before 1915, of which it paid claims on 1,100 following the genocide.

The company has not yet decided how it will notify potential heirs to the Armenian policies. "There are notification details that have to be worked out," says Bill Werfelman, spokesperson for New York Life. "Typically, class action settlements involve a national advertising program. We would envision something along those lines." Such a program would entail publishing lists of policyholders in national newspapers, hoping that a reader will recognize a name and call to find out whether their relative was a beneficiary to that policy.

New York Life and the plaintiffs in the case will work out details such as notification and how potential heirs can prove they are related to policyholders or beneficiaries. "One thing we will not require is death certificates," Werfelman says. "We recognize those were not provided in these circumstances, and we did not require them in 1915 either." In 1915, the company says it accepted the word of church leaders and others that policy owners had perished.

The settlement comes after a 2000 bill, signed into law by California Gov. Gray Davis, gave Armenian-American California residents the right to sue insurance companies over unpaid claims in California courts. New York Life previously argued that European courts should preside over such lawsuits.

The policies in question all were purchased before 1915. Armenians say that between 1915 and 1925, 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and thousands more deported, by Turks. Turks, however, claim that Armenians died only after their leaders sided with Russia during World War I.

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