Martin Marootian, a retired pharmacist who became the chief plaintiff in a landmark class-action suit against New York Life Insurance Company, died Friday of natural causes at his home in San Diego. He was 95.
Marootian was born in New York. His parents, who were from Kharpert, escaped the Genocide, but their family was massacred. Marootian grew up in New Haven and Providence, Rhode Island, toughing out the Depression with factory jobs. One of them was as an apprentice in the costume jewellery factory of Mr. Heditsion – whose son would later become the actor, David Hedison. Marootian met David Hedison many years later, saying how grateful he was that his father gave him a skill.
Graduating from the Connecticut School of Pharmacy in 1939, Marootian served with the Yale Medical Unit in the South Pacific. He met his future wife, Seda Garapedian, at a church picnic and began a new life in Southern California in 1955.
The Marootians were involved in the Armenian Allied Arts, the Armenian Film Foundation, St. Gregory’s Armenian Church, USC Friends of Armenian Music and the Armenian Professional Society, which honored Martin with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Marootian never forgot his relatives who died in Kharpert. To anyone who visited, his study was a treasure trove of books, survivor testimonies and newspaper clippings about the Armenian Genocide. Year after year, like so many Armenians, he took part in commemoration events to acknowledge the genocide.
But it wasn’t until 1994 that he had the chance to play a more prominent role in history. “I was looking through the newspaper,” he recounted in 2005, “and I read that the lawyer Vartkes Yeghiayan was looking for anyone who had an insurance policy from New York Life Insurance Company.”
Marootian remembered that his sister had an insurance policy from their uncle, Setrak Cheytanian. “He bought the policy and paid every year,” Marootian said. “A lot of Armenians bought policies in those days.”
When Marootian’s mother, Yeghsa, decided to come to America, his uncle gave the insurance policy to her, before perishing during the Genocide. From the early 1920s to her death in 1982, Yeghsa repeatedly tried to collect on the policy and was refused. “I was born in 1915 in Manhattan and we couldn’t have been any closer to the headquarters of New York Life,” said Marootian. “But we were not able to collect on that policy.”
New York Life sold over 8,700 insurances policies to Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey in the period leading up to the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Yeghiayan had long suspected there were many Armenians like the Marootians, but to mount a lawsuit he needed proof. Marootian had that proof – a policy.
It was the beginning of what would become a mammoth legal battle. New York Life denied there was a list of policyholders. Then they produced the list. New York Life then filed to have the case dismissed and tried in Europe. The California legislature responded by passing a special bill extending the statute of limitations and permitting Armenian-Americans to file suits in California against insurers to recover money from unpaid policies.
The central issue was unpaid insurance, but hovering in the background was an even bigger issue – recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. courts.
Marootian’s daughter Andrea recalls the deposition her father had to give. “It was evident that the New York Life lawyers were trying to confuse my dad by asking him the same questions over and over again, trying to make him uncomfortable, challenging him at every turn. As I watched him on his first day, I was struck with his tenacity and determination to get through the questioning. All in all, it took four and one half days to tape his deposition.”
For Marootian, then age 89, the case was his crucible. “I don’t want a million dollars,” Marootian said in 2001. “I want primarily for the Armenian community to come forward and claim their due, and I’d like the word to get around that there was a genocide. These people didn’t die in nice white beds.”
In 2004, the case was settled for $20 million. Money not claimed by descendants of the insured was to go to various charities and the Church. Judge Christine Snyder commended Marootian’s tenacity. He had shown up to every hearing, every deposition. He had demonstrated by his very presence that he would not back down. “I remembered the New York Life advertisement: we are the company you keep,” said Marootian. “I told that to the New York lawyers. I said I recognize the slogan, and in my family, you are the company my family kept for many years, and you didn’t pay.”
Three years after the case settled, Marootian lost his beloved wife Seda. It was a blow, but he was bolstered by the knowledge that the New York Life case opened the door to more lawsuits by Armenian genocide survivors against insurance companies and banks. A humble and gracious man, he wouldn’t say what others knew only too well – he had helped make history.
Marootian is survived by his children, Andrea, Vanessa and her husband Bruce and their son Evan; his two sisters, Elizabeth and her children, Jane Burns and Niel Dilworth, and Zabelle Marootian. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 26, at St. Gregory’s Church, 2215 East Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA, 91107.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make donations in Martin’s name to one of the following charities: Pomegranate Foundation (pomegranatefoundation.org), Armenian Film Foundation (armenianfilm.org) or Armenia Fund (armeniafund.org).