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Armenian genocide successors' claims against insurers dismissed

February 23, 2012 |  3:10 pm

Survivors of Armenian genocide victims can't sue German insurance companies for failing to pay claims on their ancestors because only the federal government has the power to bring foreign entities to U.S. courts, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The 11-0 ruling by the full court dismissing the lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago probably puts an end to efforts by the genocide victims' descendants to compel German companies to pay off on policies sold to the victims from 1875 to 1923.

A 2000 revision to California's civil code allowed California courts to consider insurance claims stemming from policies sold to Armenians in Europe and Asia by subsidiaries or forerunners of the German insurance company now known as Munich Re.

"The Constitution gives the federal government the exclusive authority to administer foreign affairs," the appeals court said. "Under the foreign affairs doctrine, state laws that intrude on this exclusively federal power are preempted."

The unanimous ruling said even in matters in which the federal government hasn't formulated a policy, state courts lack the authority to address questions that can affect foreign relations.

That appeared to be a reference to the State Department's delicate balancing act on the genocide issue, as the government of Turkey opposes formal acknowledgement by Washington of Armenians' claims that more than a million of their ancestors were killed in the final years of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

"The court says this is a field preemption, which means anything that deals with this group of people is reserved for the federal government," said Lee Boyd, a lawyer for the Armenian plaintiffs who argued the case before the 9th Circuit in December.

Attorneys for the Armenian claimants will look for some avenue of appeal "but it doesn't look very promising," she said, noting the unusual unanimity of the court and the U.S. Supreme Court's reluctance to review similarly unsuccessful efforts to subject foreign entities to state law.

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-- Carol J. Williams

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