California to Extend until 2016 Deadline to Sue Insurance Companies

Harut Sassounian

BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN

Eleven years ago, the California Legislature extended until the end of 2010, the deadline for filing lawsuits against insurance companies that had failed to pay benefits to heirs of Armenian Genocide victims.

Until the year 2000, these heirs could not sue insurance companies, as the deadline for filing such lawsuits had expired long ago. Under California law, the time limit for such lawsuits is 4 years.

During the past decade, after the statute of limitation was extended, Armenian-Americans successfully filed lawsuits in U.S. Federal Courts against New York Life insurance company and French AXA insurance company.

Additional lawsuits against German insurance companies and banks are still pending. With the support of the Turkish government which is not a party to these lawsuits, these German firms have unsuccessfully challenged in court the legislature’s action by claiming that the reference to the Armenian Genocide in the California bill is an encroachment on the foreign policy prerogative of the federal government.

After the expiration of the December 31, 2010 deadline, the Armenian-American community asked the California Legislature to extend the statute of limitation once again, since several new insurance companies have been identified that had not paid the benefits owed to their genocide-era clients.

To avoid further court challenges by the Turkish government and insurance companies, some have argued that there may not be a need to include a reference to the Armenian Genocide in the new California bill, as the companies were contractually obligated to pay the beneficiaries regardless of the cause of death. The legislators decided, however, not to give in to Turkish pressures and retain the reference to the Armenian Genocide, particularly since the justification for extending the filing deadline for genocide victims was that they lacked the necessary documents — death certificates and insurance policies — to file their claims in a timely manner.

It is noteworthy that the State of California defines the Armenian Genocide in the insurance bill as follows: “The Legislature recognizes that during the period from 1915 to 1923, many persons of Armenian ancestry residing in the historic Armenian homeland then situated in the Ottoman Empire were victims of massacre, torture, starvation, death marches, and exile. This period is known as the Armenian Genocide.”

The California State Assembly adopted the new bill (AB 173) on April 14, 2011, extending to December 31, 2016 the deadline for lawsuits against insurance companies by heirs of Armenian Genocide victims. Despite objections by the self-proclaimed “Turkish Peace and Justice Commission of California,” the bill was approved 10-0 by the Judiciary Committee of the California Assembly, and 61-0 by the full State Assembly. AB 173, formally supported by the Consumer Attorneys of California and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto on January 20, 2011. Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian was its principal co-author.

The Assembly’s Legislative Counsel provided the following digest of the bill: “Existing law authorizes any Armenian Genocide victim, as defined, or the heir or beneficiary of that victim, who resides in this state and has a claim arising out of an insurance policy or policies purchased or in effect in Europe or Asia between 1875 and 1923 from a defined insurer, to bring a legal action to recover on that claim in a court in this state. Existing law also provides that any action, including any pending action brought by an Armenian Genocide victim, or the heir or beneficiary of that victim, whether a resident or nonresident of this state, seeking benefits under the insurance policies issued or in effect between 1875 and 1923, shall not be dismissed for failure to comply with the applicable statute of limitation, provided the action is filed on or before December 31, 2010. This bill would extend the deadline for filing that action to December 31, 2016. This bill would declare that it is to take effect immediately as an urgency statute.”

After the State Assembly’s approval in April, the bill was referred to the California Senate Judiciary Committee on May 12, 2011. It will then be sent to the full Senate, and submitted to Governor Brown for his signature. This bill would amend Section 354.4 of the California Code of Civil Procedure that was initially signed into law on September 18, 2000. The new bill would extend the deadline to file lawsuits by heirs of Armenian Genocide victims against insurance companies from 2010 to end of 2016 — a year beyond the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, allowing many more lawsuits to be filed against delinquent insurance companies.

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