Martin Marootian, plaintiff in suit over Armenian genocide, dies at 95

By Elaine Woo
Monday, March 14, 2011; 12:21 PM

Martin Marootian, a retired pharmacist who stood up for Armenian genocide victims as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that resulted in a $20 million settlement from New York Life Insurance Co. for failing to honor claims on policies sold to thousands of Armenians slain during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, died Feb. 25 at his home in San Diego.

He was 95. The cause of death was not reported.

In 1999, Mr. Marootian joined a legal battle to force New York Life to honor policies purchased by more than 2,000 Armenians, most of whom perished in what some historians have described as the first genocide of the 20th century.

From 1915 to 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Turks, who ruled the Ottoman Empire until its dissolution after World War I. Many of the Armenians were executed, and others died on forced marches into the desert.

The cause of their deaths has long been disputed by the Turkish government, which has maintained that the Armenians were casualties of war, not targets of persecution.

Some Armenians, including Mr. Marootian, saw the battle with New York Life as an opportunity to win official acknowledgment of the suffering of genocide victims and their heirs.

Mr. Marootian "was not interested in . . . money but in the restitution of Armenian history," said Vartkes Yeghiayan, the Glendale, Calif., lawyer who spearheaded the lawsuit. "He was one of my heroes."

Born in New York on Oct. 19, 1915, Mr. Marootian grew up in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He worked as a bartender to pay his way through pharmacy school in Connecticut and graduated in 1939. During World War II, he served with an Army medical unit in the South Pacific.

After the war, he married Seda Garapedian. In 1955, they settled in Pasadena, Calif. Over the next several decades, he worked at pharmacies in Pasadena and Glendale. He and his wife lived near downtown Los Angeles for more than 35 years.

His wife died in 2007. Survivors include two daughters; two sisters; and a grandson.

Mr. Marootian was a student of Armenian history who took part in annual commemorations of genocide victims. He treasured a 1905 family portrait of 11 relatives, including his uncle, Setrak Cheytanian, who in 1910 purchased a policy with New York Life. Of the 11, the only two who survived the massacre were his mother, Yegsa, and his older sister, Alice.

His mother died in 1982. Part of her legacy was an old shoe box containing the original copy of her brother Setrak's New York Life policy, all the premium payment stubs and correspondence with the insurance company that documented her repeated attempts to collect on the policy.

The company said that it had paid benefits to the heirs of one-third of the purchasers of 3,600 policies it had sold to Armenians from 1890 to 1915, but that it had been unable to locate the beneficiaries of 2,400 policyholders who died.

When contacted by potential beneficiaries, company officials asked them to produce certification from the Armenian Church in Turkey that they were the rightful heirs. Mr. Marootian recalled in a 2005 Sacramento Bee story that it took his family more than 30 years to obtain the church certificate "and New York Life still stonewalled us."

In 1995, Mr. Marootian's sister read in an Armenian newspaper of efforts by a lawyer, Yeghiayan, to locate beneficiaries. She contacted Yeghiayan, told him about her uncle's policy documents and agreed to become the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

She died before the suit could be filed, and Mr. Marootian stepped in.

He testified before the California legislature and helped persuade state lawmakers to pass a law extending the statute of limitations on some insurance claims.

Then approaching 90, Mr. Marootian was deposed for four days by New York Life attorneys. At one point, the company offered to settle with Mr. Marootian alone, but he refused, saying he wanted restitution for the other Armenians whose claims were outstanding.

In 2004, the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle the lawsuit. According to Yeghiayan, it was Mr. Marootian's idea for the settlement to include $3 million in charitable donations to Armenian civic organizations that had helped refugees after the mass killings started.

Yeghiayan credits Mr. Marootian with "opening the floodgates" to compensation for thousands of heirs of genocide victims. To date, insurance companies in the United States, France and Greece have agreed to settlements totaling $52 million.

Some Armenian community members complained that the money awarded was insufficient, but Mr. Marootian was satisfied that a point had been made. "I'd like the word to get around that there was a genocide," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "These people didn't die in nice white beds."

- Los Angeles Times

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