The Legal Issues in the Vanessa Bryant Lawsuit

On February 24, 2020, family members and fans mourned the loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other occupants of a helicopter who died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. That same day, Bryant’s widow Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The 27-count lawsuit targets the company that leased the helicopter, Island Express Helicopters, as well as the estate of the pilot that died in the crash. The lawsuit alleges that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, was negligent at the time the accident occurred. Further, the suit alleges that Island Express is responsible for his actions as his employer and that the company itself was also negligent.

Wrongful death claims are often complex, but the Kobe Bryant case is especially so. In addition to the unique nature of the media frenzy, this claim is also complex given the large number of lives lost and the factors that go into a helicopter crash.

The Facts of the Crash

At approximately 9 a.m. Pacific Time, the helicopter carrying Bryant, his daughter, six other passengers, and the pilot took off from Orange County, California. The group was flying to the northern Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas for a basketball game. Gianna was scheduled to play in a game at noon, and her father was set to coach her. In addition to the Bryants, the helicopter also held two of Gianna’s teammates and some of their parents.

The day was overcast and foggy, which lead to visibility issues for the pilot. Due to the weather conditions, there are limitations on when a helicopter pilot can visually navigate. During the flight, the pilot sought and was granted clearance to continue using these visual flight rules despite the weather. Around 9:45 a.m., the pilot asked for radar assistance from the air controller and advised that they had climbed to 4,000 feet above sea level. This was the last contact made by the pilot.

Records indicate that the helicopter began descending rapidly, eventually leaving the radar entirely when it was roughly 400 feet from the eventual crash site. Witnesses near the site of the crash reported the plane exited clouds at a high speed before crashing into the mountainside.

Details of the Lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant targeted three defendants: Island Express Helicopters, its holding company—Island Express Holding Corporation—and the estate of pilot Ara Zobayan.

In total, the lawsuit listed 27 separate counts. The lawsuit alleges that Zobayan failed to use ordinary care while piloting the craft, and claims both corporate entities are responsible for is negligence as his employer. The lawsuit goes on to allege that both companies shared in the blame for allowing Zobayan to fly in inclement weather, and for failing to properly monitor him after Zobayan was cited in 2015 for breaching the rules regarding visual flight.

To prevail in the lawsuit, Bryant must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that Island Express and Zobayan violated their duties of care to both family members killed in the crash.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the family for their financial and emotional losses. This could include compensation or their mental anguish or for the loss of financial support that comes with the untimely death of Kobe Bryant.

Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the Bryant family for their losses. It would be to punish bad actors and deter others from similar behavior. Punitive damages are fairly uncommon and require a showing of malice, oppression, or fraud.

Pilot Negligence

The claims of pilot negligence are central to the case in many ways. While the allegation that Zobyan was negligent provides grounds to sue his estate, it also potentially offers the strongest claim against Island Express as well.

The lawsuit makes a number of claims regarding the pilot’s negligent acts. First, the suit alleges that Zobayan failed to abort the flight when it should have been clear that proceeding was unsafe. Several helicopter flights were grounded that day due to weather. The suit also alleges that Zobayan failed to use reasonable care when he failed to maintain a safe distance between the helicopter and the mountainside. The suit also claims Zobayan failed to properly monitor the weather and respond to worsening conditions. It is unlikely the Zobayan estate has the financial resources to satisfy a wrongful death claim of this magnitude. The inclusion of Zobayan’s estate in this case likely has more to do with using the negligence claim against Zobayan to pull Island Express into the lawsuit.

How the Helicopter Leasing Company Could Face Liability

In California, the doctrine known as respondeat superior allows plaintiffs to hold an employer accountable for their employee’s negligence. A plaintiff could sue the employer if the employee was working within the scope of their employment when the negligent act occurred. If the employee’s negligence results in the death or injury of another person, the employer could face civil liability.

The term means the actions of the employee are related to their expected duties while on the job. The test for whether the employer is vicariously liable for the acts of their employer boils down to whether the employee’s actions are so far outside of the normal course of their duties that it would be unfair for the employer to be held responsible.

In the Bryant case, Zobayan was working as a helicopter pilot on a chartered flight. Given that this was central to his job as a pilot, Island Express could have a difficult time demonstrating he was outside of the scope of his employment. That said, the respondeat superior doctrine is not the only avenue Bryant might have against Island Express. Her lawsuit also accuses the company of negligence.

Zobayan was not the only entity that owed a duty of care to the helicopter’s passengers. Island Express owed the passengers a duty to act reasonably in maintaining the condition of the helicopter and ensuring its pilots were properly vetted, trained, and monitored.

There are several negligence claims against Island Express, and one of them has to do with Zobayan’s 2015 incident. The lawsuit alleges that the company was negligent for failing to closely monitor Zobayan’s piloting after he was cited for violating the visual piloting rules. It remains to be seen through litigation whether or not the company addressed the issue appropriately.

Another potential issue for Island Express relates to their failure to obtain proper licensing to fly in bad weather. The New York Times reports that the company failed to obtain the necessary federal certification that would have allowed Zobayan to operate that day, given the conditions.

Mechanical Defects and Wrongful Death

Despite initial concerns that a defective part might have caused the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, the initial investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that there was no evidence of mechanical or engine failure. The NTSB made clear that these results were only preliminary, so it is still possible a defect could have played a role.

Even if a mechanical defect played no role in this crash, these defects could give rise to a wrongful death claim if they are ultimately found to be responsible.

The plaintiff in a wrongful death suit could pursue monetary compensation from the manufacturer of a defective product. If defects during the manufacturing process caused the helicopter part to be dangerous or unreliable, it could serve as the basis of a claim.

These cases are strongest when a defect was obvious or the manufacturer was aware of its existence. In some cases, these defects could impact an entire product line. In others, these defects could be limited to a small number of parts.

How The Marrone Law Firm, LLC Can Help

Few things in life are as difficult as losing a loved one in an unexpected and avoidable manner. When another person or entity is responsible for this loss of life, you might have the right to hold them accountable through a wrongful death lawsuit.

A wrongful death case is not a criminal action, and will not result in the responsible party facing jail time. However, it could provide you with a measure of justice. A successful wrongful death claim could result in monetary compensation that could provide for your financial needs during your difficult time.

The scope of wrongful death cases involving catastrophic accidents is enormous. Given our extensive background in dealing with difficult cases, the Marrone Law Firm, LLC has the resources necessary to take on these large claims. Call to schedule an initial consultation as soon as an issue arises.

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Media Contact for Marrone Law Firm, LLC: Brigette Lutz, blutz@marronelawfirm.com