The widow of Kobe Bryant has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that crashed in dense fog, killing her husband, daughter Gianna, and seven others.
Vanessa Bryant filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court Feb. 24, seeking to hold Island Express Helicopters liable on 28 counts. Among them, the complaint alleges the helicopter’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, failed “to properly monitor and assess the weather conditions” before the flight and neglected to “use ordinary care in piloting the … aircraft.”
The 1991 Sikorsky S-76B helicopter departed from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, Jan. 26 on its way to Thousand Oaks, where the legendary Lakers player was to coach his daughter’s basketball game. Mr. Zobayan continued to fly the helicopter in and around deteriorating weather conditions when the aircraft collided with a hillside in Calabasas, killing everyone aboard.
The lawsuit claims that “Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable for any and all actions of Ara George Zobayan, including his negligent and careless piloting and operation of the subject helicopter, by reason of its principal and agent relationship with Ara George Zobayan.”
Mrs. Bryant seeks unspecified general, economic, and punitive damages from Island Express. The helicopter company suspended operations after the crash.
The lawsuit also alleges that the company failed to equip the helicopter with a Terrain Avoidance and Warning System (TAWS) and other safety technology that could have prevented the crash. TAWS alerts pilots to mountains, hillsides, and other obstacles when visibility is poor.
Among other allegations, the complaint also asserts that Mr. Zobayan flew the helicopter in weather conditions that Island Express wasn’t licensed to fly in. Federal Aviation Administration records show that the company was certified to operate only under visual flight rules (VFR), which require pilots to avoid fog, clouds, and nighttime conditions while using both vision and instruments to navigate.
Recordings between air traffic controllers and Mr. Zobayan reveal that the helicopter was operating under “special visual flight rules” (SVFR) when it was in airspace above Burbank. An SVFR clearance allows pilots to operate in weather conditions that don’t meet the minimum for regular VFR.
The complaint alleges Island Express knew or should have known that the FAA nabbed Mr. Zobayan for violating weather-related flight rules in 2015. According to the lawsuit, he was operating a helicopter for Island Express in May 2015 when he was denied clearance through Los Angeles International Airport due to poor weather-related visibility.
Instead of complying, Mr. Zobayan flew into the airspace, CNN reported, citing enforcement records.
Regulatory records state that Mr. Zobayan admitted his error, and “was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”
“Mr. Zobayan was counseled on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather and anticipating required action. He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling,” the report states.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.
Additional source: Law 360