Martin Marootian dies at 95; lead plaintiff in suit over Armenian genocide victims' insurance policies

The retired pharmacist joined a legal battle in 1999 to force New York Life to honor policies bought by over 2,000 people, most of whom died in the genocide. The company settled for $20 million.

March 12, 2011
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Elaine Woo

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, has died. He was 95.

Marootian died Feb. 25 of natural causes at his home in San Diego, said his daughter, Andrea.

In 1999 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 Marootian, saw the battle with New York Life as an opportunity to win some official acknowledgement of the suffering of genocide victims and their heirs.

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

Born in New York on Oct. 19, 1915, Marootian grew up in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He worked as a bartender to pay his way through the Connecticut School of Pharmacy 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, and in 1955 they settled in Pasadena. Over the next several decades he worked at pharmacies in Pasadena and Glendale. He and his wife lived in La Cañada Flintridge for more than 35 years, until Seda's death in 2007.

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 that included 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 shoebox containing the original copy of her brother Setrak's New York Life policy, all the premium payment stubs and her correspondence with the insurance company dating to the 1920s that documented her repeated attempts to collect on the policy.

The company said that it had paid benefits to the heirs of a 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 the other 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. 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, Marootian's sister read in an Armenian newspaper of attorney Yeghiayan's efforts to locate beneficiaries. Of the hundreds who responded to the story, she was the only one who had the original policy. She agreed to become the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but died before it could be filed. Her children were about to throw out the shoebox when Marootian, recognizing the importance of its contents, stepped in.

The next several years were arduous. Marootian testified before the California Legislature, which was persuaded to pass a law extending the statute of limitations on such claims. Then approaching 90, the retiree was deposed for four days by New York Life attorneys. At one point, the company offered to settle with Marootian alone, but he refused, saying he wanted restitution for all 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 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 Marootian with "opening the floodgates" to compensation for thousands of heirs of genocide victims. To date, insurance companies in the U.S., France and Greece have agreed to settlements totaling $52 million.

Some Armenian community members complained that the money awarded was insufficient, but 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 Times in 2001. "These people didn't die in nice white beds."

In addition to his daughter Andrea, Marootian leaves another daughter, Vanessa Backer, a grandson and two sisters.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on March 26 at St. Gregory Armenian Church, 2215 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.